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.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

I've thought highly of Christopher Hitchens, even though I haven't always agreed with his opinions. He is widely traveled and well read. He has written on religion, politics, biography, and culture. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens discusses religion versus skepticism, going over centuries of the history of organized religion.

Hitchens starts by discussing the atrocities committed in the name of religion. Throughout history, religious authorities have abused their powers and subjected others. Religion not only kills people directly but subjects them to onerous and ridiculous health restrictions. He dissects the metaphysical precepts of religion and demolishes them. He also destroys any other arguments for the exists of God.

He spends a couple of chapters on the terrors that the God of the Old Testament wages on humanity and the horrors of the New Testament. The horrible injustices in the Old Testament are well known. The principle that one's children are to bear the burden of one's errors is clearly immoral by human standards. But it is in the New Testament where Hell is first mentioned. Before that there was no concept of eternal punishment.

Hitchens shows the origins of Islam and the Mormons. Both were religions initiated when their founders declared that they had been sent revelations by God. The Koran is shown to be made up of old sayings and scriptures stolen from the Torah and the Bible, filtered through the violence of the early struggles of the sect. As far as the LDS, Joseph Smith was a convicted con artist who fooled many people with his story of golden tables that mysteriously appeared and disappeared.

Hitches is well read and displays his knowledge when he talks about the history of the Catholic church and the history of atheists, freethinkers, and other apostates. He gives a good description of William of Ockham and his common sense principle of choosing the hypothesis that is least complicated or has the fewest entities. His theory, if taken sincerely, would not only make philosophy simpler but negate any concept of metaphysics or gods. I really enjoyed his listing of historical figures who were nonbelievers who could not be honest with their thoughts due to the extreme measures the church and society took to suppress dissent.

He posits that religion not only does not make people better but makes them worse. Forcing children to believe crazy things and undergo harmful rituals is very damaging. Finally he makes the case for a new Enlightenment, a rebirth of the ideals of science and knowledge against the tyranny of dogma.

I was impressed by the wealth of knowledge Hitchens displays throughout the book. He is well versed in the history of fanaticism, and has witnessed acts of fanatics from Yugoslavia to India. He is an avowed atheist and sees no use for religion. His style is literary and philosophical, often using asides to show an important related tidbit. Hitchens is ruthless throughout the book. He does not show any sympathy for dogma or those to shun the value of reason and knowledge. It is really refreshing and honest. It is a great resource for anybody questioning the value of faith, or those of us without faith who wish to learn more of the history of religion and apostates. A

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pirate Freedom

I've come to enjoy Gene Wolfe very much. In fact he is now one of my favorite authors. His book Pirate Freedom is much like his duology The Wizard Knight, which I read a few years ago. Like in the latter work, Pirate Freedom is a first person narration of a young man taken out of his world to a strange reality where he performs heroic deeds.

The narrator is Chris or Chrisoforo. He is a young monk who leaves his monastery in Cuba rather than take the vows. When he reaches the nearest town he finds he has been transported to the world of the Spanish Main. He soon finds work on a ship and finds that he enjoys it well enough though the men are rough. On a stay in Spain he meets a young woman named Estrellita, but leaves her when he discovers she and her mistress have been beaten because of him. On the way back to the Caribbean, his ship is captured by pirates led by Captain Burt, an English pirate captain. Captain Burt recognizes Chris from an earlier visit where Chris helped him, and since Chris knows several languages and can navigate. But Chris demurs, so Burt keeps him in chains. Eventually he lets Chris take a prize back to port for sale. But even though Chris gets a taste of the pirate life when they capture a slave ship, when he sees Burt again he tells him he still doesn't want to join him. So Burt leaves him alone on an empty beach on Hispaniola with a rifle and some supplies.

Chris becomes a buccaneer, hunting with other buccaneers for meat that they sell to passing ships. But the Spanish soon come and capture them. He is incensed that his money is stolen. He round up his surviving buccaneers friends and they paddle over to the nearest Spanish port where they capture the Spanish ship there. He also finds a young sailor who turns out to be Estrellita, whom he now calls Novia. The group of them become pirates, capturing ships for their cargo and prize money.

There is also a big mystery about one of the ships they carry. It is cursed, and he believes someone is hiding aboard and killing people. He also finds another Estrellita, and has to sort out the two women.

Before long they run into Captain Burt and join forces with him. Burt wants to attack a large town and capture all the silver and gold. Between them they have about eight ships and several hundred men. When they finally make an attack they are successful, but much of the silver escapes into the jungle. They track it across the isthmus of Panama, but are ambushed and betrayed. Finally Chris escapes with Novia and they start to settle down. There is a last twist where Chris's story and his interleaved comments start to connect.

There is much more to the story; it is action-packed and well written. Chris is a smart man and a good storyteller. Wolfe does a good job with Chris's narration as he talks about leaving out stuff, or inserting comments that won't be explained for several paragraphs or chapters. There's so much that sometimes one has to retrace Chris's steps. There's always good suspense, especially around the mysteries of Estrellita and the cursed ship, which turn out to be related. It's got romance, mystery, and a lot of action. Wolfe is at his usual great storytelling. A-

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition

Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition is a Modern Scholar lecture course on the Inquisition. Professor Thomas F. Madden starts with the history of the early church and its development in the Roman empire. The Christian church based its authority on the Apostles, and defined its rules based on Roman law.

The Inquisition was created in medieval times to combat heresy, beliefs that are not inline with Catholic teachings. Several early heresies threatened to split the church. There were secular inquisitions as well as Catholic inquisitions, because heresy was not only a threat to a church but treason against the secular authorities. The Roman inquisition would come in and weed out heretics, using legal procedures based on Roman law. It was often lenient, letting convicted heretics go if they repented. Yet locals were glad to have the inquisition come to town, since heretics were a threat to the souls of others as well as their own.

The Spanish Inquisition came into being when the Spanish authorities wanted to get rid of the "Jewish problem". Many Jews had been converted to Christianity, but these Conversos were often persecuted as secret Jews. Many people were burned at the stake, and many others fled to more amenable locations.

The Reformation was an break in the church that was an extreme heresy. Pretty soon, with different sects appearing all across Europe, the view of different religious beliefs as heretical died away. The inquisition faded away.

I took two main points from the course. The first is the nature of an organization that defines itself based on belief. When dogma is central to membership, the organization must be vigilant about maintaining a unified set of beliefs. Any different beliefs are a threat to the existence of the organization. The other point is the mixing of religious and secular authority. Once the power of the state is involved with affairs of conscience, freedom is curtailed.

I thought the professor was a little sympathetic to the inquisition, but he made some good points. The inquisitions were based on specific procedures and Roman law. The secular inquisitions were often worse than the church based ones. It was enlightening to learn about the history of the early church. The most interesting part was learning about the different heresies and how the church dealt with them. And he shows how the cultural myths about the inquisition are an exaggeration of the truth. Still, it wasn't something I would have wanted to live through first hand. B+

Thursday, November 06, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in Flames is the latest book by David Sedaris. Like the last two I enjoyed, this is a compilation of humorous essays about various subjects.

One of the funniest essays is "The Understudy", about the old woman left to take care of him and his sisters and brother when his parents go on a vacation. The old woman, Mrs. Peacock, spends her time in their parents bed, having the children take turns scratching her back with a back scratcher. She barely feeds them anything or takes care of them. The greatest part is when their parents come home are are incredulous about their tales of woe.

He also talks about his life living in France. About misunderstanding what a nurse tells you and sitting down in the waiting room in his underwear. About befriending an old man in an old hut who turns out to be a molester.

He also writes about traveling. He describes some of the people he meets when hitchhiking. He is cursed to meet some of the worst people. A woman he sits next to on a plane makes his flight miserable because he refuses to trade seats with her husband.

Another terrible woman he meets is his neighbor in an apartment building. She is nosy, mean, demanding and pushy. Yet he maintains a friendship with her for years, and attends her funeral.

The final essay is a long one about his decision to live in Japan for three months while he tries to give up smoking. It's a strange choice, given the heavy smoking of the Japanese and the fact that he doesn't speak the language. But he and his boyfriend stay in an apartment and he takes language lessons. He describes some anecdotes of his life there, including how terrible he does in the Japanese class and how he comes to not think of smoking.

Sedaris has a way of describing the incidents in his life and bringing out the most humorous and touching parts. He has a way of finding the most interesting people, in a good way and a bad way. As usual, I found the parts where he describes his family the most entertaining. One of the funniest essays is "Adult Figures Charging Toward Concrete Toadstool", where he talks about turning his parents onto his love of art, only to have them overtake his interest and for him to discover that he has terrible taste and no talent. I found myself laughing at many points in the book. B+

Monday, November 03, 2008

Thirteen Moons

Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons is a novel about the fictional life of Will Cooper, a man whose life encompasses much of the 19th century in and around the Cherokee Nation in the southern Appalachian mountains. Will is and orphan sent to be a servant to a merchant and has to watch over a modest trading post. On the way he encounters Featherstone, a violent Indian who deals with stolen horses and gambling and runs a plantation. At the outpost Will meets Bear, a quiet older Indian man who takes him under his wing.

Things go well for Will when he buys out his contract his trading post and another. He learns Cherokee and studies the law. He meets Claire, a young girl who lives with Featherstone, and they fall in love. Eventually he discovers that Claire is not Featherstone's daughter but his wife, and they have a falling out, including a duel.

Will uses his legal skills to assist Bear's people resist the Removal, when the U.S. government forced the Indians off their land and to the West. He buys up a lot of land inside and outside the Nation's boundaries, taking advantage of loans and every legal loophole he can imagine. He goes to Washington and meets President Jackson. He becomes a leader among the Indians, and eventually a state senator. He travels to the West and finds Claire, but is disappointed when he discovers she has had a child with Featherstone, so he returns home.

During the Civil War, he and a bunch of Indians form a regiment and camp out in the mountains but don't do much fighting. When the war is over they return home, Bear soon dies, and Will's construct soon falls apart. The bills come due and the debtors demand to be paid. Much of his land, held in trust for Bear's people, is sold. He survives to witness many of his friends pass away, always pining for Claire and never being fulfilled.

This is a great book, much better than the sum of its parts. Will Cooper is a strong character, though he has his flaws. His two father figures are Bear and Featherstone, and they are very different. Bear is gentle and caring, and he clings to the old ways. Featherstone is rough and demanding; his people are afraid of him. Will admits that "I'm sure it is one of my greatest failures in life that, of my two flawed fathers, I more closely mirror Featherstone's example." I think Will was basically truthful, but a little hard on himself. In his care of Bear and Bear's people, he showed a generosity that was beyond anything Featherstone could display.

Will is well-read and literary. The language of his narration reflects his wide reading, including the classics and contemporary writers such as Byron. He is a poet and a lover. He is forced to do unpleasant things, as when the officer in charge of the Removal forces him to assist them retrieving some runaway Indians. This was an incident emblematic of his character and the way he was torn between two worlds. As a white man adopted by Indians, he often had to make hard choices between bad options.

The mountains have a character all their own. They are home to Will and Bear and Claire and all their people. The whole setting comes alive, even though most of the actual places are imaginary. I also found the theme of Indian conflict to be moving. To see the removal of Indians from their homes dramatized is a memorable experience. It's not something you usually hear about when learning American history.

The central conflicts of the story are Will's love for Claire and the impediment of Featherstone; Bear's complex and sometimes rocky relationship with the Indians and the outsiders; and the Indians' struggle to keep their ways and lands against the tide of American progress. They are all doomed to failure in different ways. With these compelling themes and the evocative, lyrical language, the book is at the top of my list for the year. It's a very memorable A.