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, October 28, 2008

Spook Country

William Gibson's Spook Country is a novel about four sets of people tracking down a shipping container. The big mystery is what is in the container and why are the people so interested.

Hollis Henry is a former musician and minor pop star now writing for a startup magazine called Node. She has been assigned to write about a new art form called locative art. Soon her new boss Rausch asks her to meet with the artist's engineer, a man named Bobby Chombo. Chombo is paranoid and sleeps in a different two meter GPS grid square every night. He is helping a mysterious party track a cargo container that has been traveling across the ocean on different ships from port to port.

Milgrim is a painkiller addict who is being forced by a man calling himself Brown to help track down some members of a crime family connected to the cargo container. Brown keeps Milgrim under control by giving him small doses of painkillers and locking him in his hotel room. Milgrim translates the Russian code that the criminals send to each other. The man they are tracking is Tito, Cuban-Chinese and part of a small crime family. When Brown and his team make a move on Tito and the old man who is his contact, everything goes awry. It turns out the old man and the rest of the family were expecting him.

Chombo disappears with his equipment, and Rausch tells Hollis that one of his employees put a tracker on the truck and it's headed north. Hollis ends up in Vancouver where the container has entered the port. When Hollis follows Chombo again, she ends up meeting Tito and the old man, who convinces her to hang around and see what's going on. It turns out Bobby is tracking the container for the old man and his family. Brown is tracking the trackers, and also ends up in Vancouver. Hollis goes with Garreth, an associate of the old man, as he shoots radioactive slugs into the container, and Tito sneaks into the port and plugs the holes with magnets. When Brown crashes his car in an attempt to kill Tito, Milgrim escapes and steals Hollis's purse including a wad of money. The old man explains that there is $100 million in the container which is now irradiated and useless to the owners.

I was disappointed in this book. The characters were somewhat interesting, but the plot was largely incoherent. The story is amusing along the way, but for most of the narrative I couldn't figure out why I should care about the container or anything to do with it. There was never an explanation for how either Brown or Rausch know about the container or why they cared so much about it or the old man. Some of the other plot elements were good, but they never added up to much. Some of the story was confusing, and the confusion was never completely settled. It's not really one of Gibson's best. B-

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Against the Tide of Years

Against the Tide of Years is the sequel to S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time. It's about eight years after the Event that sent Nantucket to the Bronze Age. The Republic of Nantucket has expanded, pulling in immigrants for labor and armed forces from their allies. They have also created settlements across the world and made alliances with foreign governments.

But there is still the threat of Walker, the renegade who escaped at the end of the first book. He has settled in Greece and started building an army, slowly consolidating his power. The Nantucketers intend to contain him. One mission is to send a diplomatic envoy to Babylon and make an alliance with the king there. The mission goes well, so well in fact that one of the woman who leads the military command falls in love with the Babylonian princes. The Nantucketers train the Babylonians in firearms and help them defeat the Assyrians, with the goal to provide a unified front against Walker.

Meanwhile, Commodore Alston and her lover/lieutenant Swindapa nearly lose their ship in a storm on the voyage back home. They limp into a small bay to do repairs and have to fight off two boatloads of Tartessians. They manage to capture the ships and crew and get a bounty for the crew, but keep the ships.

Much of the first two thirds of the story is made up of intermittent battles and details of the plans they make and work they do to build up a strategic force to defeat Walker. Some of it gets a bit slow, though informative. It picks up when the Nantucket dirigible on watch spots enemy ships sailing for the island. The whole island is mobilized, and a great battle ensues. They manage to fight of the invading Tartessians and declare war on Tartessos.

Meanwhile, Ian and Doreen Arnstein do the diplomatic work in the far edge of the world. They consolidate their alliance with the Babylonians, even as a plague of smallpox takes over the city. They then head to the north, where Walker's forces are marching on Ilios. At the novel's end, the groundwork is laid for a huge war for Troy.

The dramatic parts of the story are interleaved with the nation-building details. It was good to see a variety of challenges other than military. The Nantucketers have to deal with plagues, superstition, poor water supplies, complex logistics, and difficult to train troops. The plotline with the Babylonians is the central driving force of the story. There is a good sense of the world becoming smaller thanks to the naval fleet of the island. They trade with peoples across the world. Likewise they have to make alliances to survive.

The characters aren't quite as well developed as they could be. The Babylonian prince and his lover Kathryn Hollard are on exception. The prince is eager to take advantage of new technology, yet he also understands his people's fears. The love story between them is a little predictable, but it was enjoyable to watch develop.

As usual there is a good bit of detail on the technology the Islanders develop and the challenges they go through. There are also a lot of different types of people and languages. Before the attack on the island there is little suspense, but otherwise it is a very good book. B+

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Parenting Beyond Belief

Parenting Beyond Belief is a book of essays on how to raise a child in a god-free environment and instill in them a sense of morality, awe, and understanding of scientific and logical viewpoints. The essays, edited by Dale McGowan, are written by people from different backgrounds, including Penn Jillette, Richard Dawkins, and two UU ministers.

The first section illustrates different worldviews that rely on skepticism and free inquiry rather than authority and superstition. People describe how they threw away beliefs that they realized were untenable. The next section talks about dealing with mixed families, where one spouse is religious and the other is not. It's a tough situation and many families do not survive. The turmoil can be very rough. It works the best if the parents of young children can agree on boundaries and fairness.

There is a great section on secular holidays--nonreligious families need to celebrate as much as religious families. Secular holidays can celebrate the natural cycles and milestones in our lives. Likewise, gratitude and patriotism are secular values to celebrate.

The most important essays are on morality and doing good for the right reasons. The point is made that not only can we teach children how to be good without religion, morality is ingrained early on without religious concepts. Empathy is largely the core of morality, and religion is a veneer over it, which sometimes becomes counterproductive.

More essays are about meaning and wondering, and dealing with death. One section is about the wonders of science and rejecting the false wonders of religion. The real wonders of the universe are so much more amazing that the imaginary ideas of myth. The last chapter is on finding secular communities. There is good in finding fellowship with other people who share your values, though it is different to keep in a community with relatively weak ties (i.e. no shared beliefs).

I found the essays very valuable. It's good to know that others are struggling with the same issues and have come to very similar solutions. The most important essay was Richard Dawkins' letter to his daughter, "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing." He describes the dangers of believing in ideas uncritically. This essay should be distributed to all churches.

I found other valuable concepts. Teaching children wonder and awe at the natural universe is important. Helping them deal with religious bigotry and religious friends is necessary in our hyper-religious world. Deal with death honestly but carefully. Help them come up with their own philosophy of life and create their own meaning. Above all, be a good example. Exemplify your own morality and philosophy of life. Show them the awe and wonders of the universe.

This is an important book. I would recommend it for anyone, but especially for humanists. It's a solid A.