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.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Water Logic

Water Logic, by Laurie J. Marks, takes place a few months after the end of Earth Logic. Karis is the new G'deon and Clement is the new general of the Sainnites. They have made a peace, but Shaftali people including some Paladin irregulars are against the peace because they wants justice against the Sainnites. And many Sainnites are against the peace because they want to control the Shaftali and believe Clement is a coward.

Zanja and Clement's lover Mariseth travel to a nearby farm to get dogs to protect the Shaftali Council building after assassins sneak in and kill several people while trying to murder Karis. The assassins turn out to be sent by a Shaftali air witch who wants vengeance against the Sainnites. On the way back from the farm, Zanja falls through the ice and disappears. When she awakens, she discovers she has been transported via water magic to a time two hundreds years in the past. She travels to the House of Lilterwess where the current G'deon rules. She takes up with a Speaker from her own tribe and convinces the G'deon to let her travel as a Paladin. She then travels to the lake where she met the water witch and ends up finding him there. He tells her to travel to the ocean to find the witch who sent her to the past.

Meanwhile, Karis is upset that Zanja is gone, but Norina believes it may be due to water logic. Clement travels to a distant garrison to deal with a mutinous commander who used to be her lover. After the commander has her shot and kills two Paladins, Karis travels there by herself to heal her. Finally Clement, with Karis's earth magic, gets inside the garrison and captures the commander, killing her in the process.

Mariseth, or Seth, travels with a Sainnite named Damon to follow an assassin that got away. They track him to her own family's farm, where he's been turning Shaftali people against Karis and the peace she has made. The assassin sneaks away with a donkey and a locked box and they follow him to the ocean. He attacks them and kills Damon, but Seth manages to push him and the donkey over a cliff. Then the ocean people come and tell her she must get on one of their boats.

Still in the past, Zanja enlists the help of some students to break into an ancient library that she knows will be destroyed by the Sainnites. She steals a huge book and a donkey and makes her way to the ocean, but Tadwell, the G'deon, chases after her for betraying his trust. When the water witch of the ocean people takes Zanja on a boat, he shifts the earth to run the river backwards and bring her back so he can get the book back. He lets Zanja go with the water witch, and she gets thrown into the ocean, only to have Seth pull her out two hundred years later and she gets reunited with Karis.

This is a beautiful story. It tells about the struggle to unite two people who have been killing each other for a generation. Both sides have their detractors who hate the other side too much to give up fighting. The water logic comes into the story and disrupts everyone's plans. It turns out to have a reason of its own, as the water witch manipulated events to shift the earth around her people's bay to give it more protection.

As usual in the Elemental Logic books, the characters are strong and well drawn. Karis and Zanja's relationship is a central force in the story. Clement takes on her mission of keeping the peace but it nearly kills her. Seth, a minor character in the previous book, comes out as a complex central character. She wants to preserve the peace but is dismayed at the barriers, especially when her own family starts to turn against her. The assassin, having failed to kill the G'deon, seeks to poison people's minds against her efforts. It's a great symbol of the way that hatred and anger can spread through the land.

I was pleasantly surprised by the parallels between Zanja's travels and Seth's tracking of the assassin. Their paths are so similar, down to the stolen book and the stolen box. Though it's apparent what's in the box, it is a great experience reading about it being opened and having its contents explained. The whole story is woven together from separate strands into a strong unified experience. A-

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Joseph Campbell's classic analysis of mythology from around the world. Campbell discusses elements of various myths and shows patterns that appear in all myths. His approach uses theories of psychoanalysis from Freud and Jung. Freud's ideas about the son killing the father and taking his place in the mother's bed has reflections in all sorts of myths beyond the story of Oedipus.

Part One is "The Adventure of the Hero". It describes the hero's journey as he leaves society, does great deeds, goes to the world beyond, and returns to bring knowledge to his people. The hero crosses the threshold from the natural world to the supernatural world, entering the the world of forms, or metaphorically, entering the subconscious. There he joins with the mother, atones with the father, and receives special knowledge. The special knowledge may be in the form of a magical item and helps the natural world or society. Often there are tests that the hero must go through to prove his worth or even his very identity. When the hero returns to the natural world, the knowledge he brings either restores society or takes it to a new level.

In Part Two, "The Cosmogonic Cycle," Campbell discusses the myths of origins. Many mythologies describe vast cycles of time that repeat or alternative. Most systems begin with a creation of order out of chaos, or a separation of singularity into complements, e.g. yin/yang or male/female or light/dark. The primordial world is described as giving birth through some primal mating, often with the Earth and sky. At some point, the mythic world of forms is transformed into the world of history, often with a transformative figure. This hero bridges the world of gods and legends to the current world.

I found this book very informative and sweeping in its coverage of different myths. I was somewhat unsure about Campbell's use of classic psychoanalysis, since I feel it overemphasizes the Oedipus Complex due to Victorian standards and preoccupations. But its truth is expressed in myths throughout the world. Many mythologies express the concern of a god or legendary king seeking to protect his power from being stolen from his progeny, or show his heirs stealing the power that's rightfully theirs. Also, the usurper in turn becomes the tyrant, leading to another cycle.

I was also intrigued by the elements of motherhood, specifically the virgin births. Mothers are seen as producing the whole world. The cycles of life, death, and rebirth occur again and again.

I came to understand myth much better when Campbell discussed mythical forms as representations of the subconscious. Maybe a part of me already knew this, but reading the passages up to it gave me the foundations to see it this way. I had always considered them abstractions, but not as symbols of the inner psyche. This was enlightening to me. In Campbell's description, when the hero reaches the other world and communes with the eternal mother and achieves special knowledge, this is symbolic of internal psychological forces. So much myth makes so much more sense with this perspective.

Campbell was clearly well read and understood not just the surfaces of myths but their underlying meaning and common links. He shows how the mythical hero is the embodiment of so many things: the super powerful human, the link to the world of forms, the transcending of life and death or even all opposites. These elements play out on the microcosm of the mind and the macrocosm of the universe. Understanding myth is critical to understanding psychology, religion, literature, even art. It is an eternal cycles that we encounter in many great works. A

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Hidden Family

The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross, is the second book of his Merchant Princes series, a follow-up to The Family Trade. Miriam is still hiding from her family with her friend and business partner Paulette and her lady in waiting Brilliana. Miriam uses a locket she found on a would-be assassin to world-travel to a third world.

Much of the first part of the book is Miriam's exploration of New Britain, the land of the third world. She discovers it has a fascinating history that breaks with the regular history in the seventeenth century with the English Civil War, and the French rule the British Isles. Miriam has to navigate the paranoid laws and the risk of being accused of being a French agent. She comes to the conclusion that the missing family members have been traveling between this world and the world of the family.

Miriam tells her lover Roland and then her uncle Duke Angbard. Angbard morphs from a stern power figure to an understanding member of the family. There are surprises along the way, as Miriam discovers (it is in many ways a novel of discovery, family secrets and all) that many people around her are not exactly who they seem to be. After another assassination attempt, she brings the perpetrator to the family castle and convinces Angbard to declare an emergency family meeting. In the end Miriam faces down her grandmother, gets her business accepted as a family enterprise, and helps save the day from a family traitor.

This book is a satisfactory sequel. Learning about the ways of the new world was a lot of fun. Sometimes I got a little tired of Miriam figuring out everything so easily, and I wanted her to struggle a little more. The characters other than Miriam are not as well developed as they could be, but over the course of the series they have potential. There's not really a big sense of suspense in the story, but there are a lot of pieces of family struggle that come out and are very familiar to just about anyone. The intrigue within the family is pretty good, though I felt it could have been drawn out a bit more. But there are surprises, and they are enjoyable. B+

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A look back at 2008

I think it's beneficial to look back every now and then, and the new year is a great time to reflect on the accomplishments of the last twelve months. I'd like to get down some reflections on the books I've read in the last year.

I read 45 books last year, from The Gripping Hand to The Traveler. A few books I was less than impressed with, like A Prophecy Forgotten and The Traveler. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town; Feed and The Truelove were good books that still didn't quite match their potential.

When I think of the most memorable books that I've read this year, at the top of the list are Catch-22, The Mind's I, Thirteen Moons, Cowl, Le Ton Beau De Marot, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Fire Logic and Earth Logic. I also enjoyed The Last of the Mohicans, one of the few classics I read. These are the books I'm most glad to have read.

I also listened to several good lectures courses, some podcasts, and some Spanish lessons. I think I read a good variety of books, including more nonfiction than I had realized. I didn't read that much science fiction, and I usually consider myself a science fiction fan. Hopefully in the next year I find some more good science fiction to read.

I enjoyed reading Christopher Hitchens for the first time, and J. R. R. Tolkien's latest published work. I finally read Charles Frazier, and enjoyed more Gene Wolfe. I was impressed by Cooper and underwhelmed by Gibson. I learned more from Hofstadter and discovered Laurie J. Marks. It was a good year.

My goal for next year is to read even more (50 books?), including more science fiction and a few more classics.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Traveler

I listened to the audio book of The Traveler, by John Twelve Hawks. It is a science fiction novel using the concept of people who can travel to different worlds with their spirits while their bodies remain in a trance state. The Travelers are protected by a group of people called Harlequins, who defend them against a powerful group they refer to as the Tabula, though they call themselves the Brethren. The Brethren are a secret organization in positions of power in the world, who covet more power, and use the powers of surveillance of what Twelve Hawks calls the "vast machine" to maintain control. They see the Travelers and the Harlequins as a threat to their power, or as they describe it, the stability of society.

Maya is the daughter of a Harlequin who discovers her father's body soon after reuniting with him in Prague. She travels to the Los Angeles under a fake identity and, using her contacts with other Harlequins, tries to save two brothers who may be the last surviving Travelers. Gabriel and Michael Corrigan have been living off the grid for years, ever since their home was attacked and their father was presumably killed. But when Michael uses his real name to further a business venture, the Brethren finds them and captures him while Gabriel barely escapes. Maya is betrayed by a former Harlequin but manages to escape and find Gabriel. With the help of a member, Vicky, and former member, Hollis, of a church that reveres a nineteenth century traveler as a prophet, Gabriel and Maya evade the Brethren's searches for them.

Lawrence Tanaka is the son of a Harlequin who works for the Brethren but secretly sends information to the Harlequins. He steals a sword that is sent to the Brethren but is unable to escape with it.

Maya takes Gabriel to a commune that is hiding a pathfinder, a woman who can help a Traveler learn to travel across boundaries to different worlds. He learns to travel to the between worlds and finds his brother Michael there. Unknown to Gabriel, Michael has joined forces with the Brethren so he can be a part of the group in power. When Gabriel meets Michael again in the next world, he tells Michael where he is. Soon the Brethren abduct Gabriel and Vicky. Maya and Hollis drive across the country to rescue them.

The concepts in the story have potential, but it never seemed to amount to much. There was never much suspense in the story, and it felt like I always knew what was going to happen next. The characters, other than Maya, are very flat and one-sided. And the dialog was some of the worst I've ever listened to. (Perhaps reading Catch-22 at the same time spoiled me.) Twelve Hawks does a pretty good job describing the surveillance capabilities of the "vast machine," but the members of the Brethren are too stereotypical to enjoy properly. There's insufficient reason for Michael to join forces with the people to burned his house down and tried to kill his father. Maya is well drawn, as the angry and conflicted protector, with the single-minded devotion that conflicts with her need to not get too close to her charge. I was also mystified about why the Brethren and the Travelers were in conflict at all. True, they may encourage people to live off the grid, but what does this have to do with traveling to different worlds? There's never an explanation of what they find in the other worlds or how it makes them different when they return, just that they become teachers or prophets. What's left is a group of story elements that don't quite come together to make a satisfying story. B-

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 is set during World War II on the fictional Mediterranean island of Pianosa. The central character is a bombardier name Yossarian whose only desire is to get out of flying any more missions. He has survived fifty bombing runs but Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions that the officers must fly. Yossarian is stuck by Catch-22, which says that since he doesn't want to fly any more missions, he is sane enough for duty. He can't be taken off duty unless he asks, and if he asks it means he's still qualified to fly.

Catch-22 is not a novel with a conventional plot. The conflict involves Yossarian's attempts to avoid flying missions so he can stay alive. Yossarian seems to be the only sane person in the novel; the whole system is insane, so compared to everyone else he is the crazy one. When Yossarian decides to go back over a bombing run because he would have miss the first time, and he actually takes out the bridge, Colonel Cathcart can't decide whether to promote him and give him a medal, or to court martial him for getting one of his colleagues shot down.

Yossarian feels guilty for getting his friend killed, and just for surviving when so many pilots have been shot down. He gets checked into the hospital to avoid combat duty, but that only lasts so long before the doctors get on to him. He and the other officers enjoy leave in Rome where they enjoy the company of whores.

The other two characters that take center stage are Milo and the chaplain. Milo is the mess officer, and he develops a plan to create a syndicate to feed the men on the island. He requisitions planes and pilots to fly around the Mediterranean buying and trading food and other supplies. Eventually he goes so far to bomb the American camp itself, but since he was doing it in the name of business and he could show a profit for the syndicate, he doesn't get into trouble. Only Yossarian tries to point out Milo's errors, but even he can't overcome Milo's greed.

The chaplain is the conscience of the story, and his ineffectiveness is symbolic of the weakness of any logic to overcome the insanity. He meets Yossarian in the hospital and the two of them become friends. The chaplain is hampered by his corporal, who uses the chaplain's friendliness against him. The chaplain is also frozen in the face of Colonel Cathcart's selfish vindictiveness.

The novel is woven from its characters. Each of Yossarian's colleagues is unique and colorful, and most die in a spectacular fashion. Each one illustrates a new kind of craziness.

This is a great book. The characters are well drawn and come together to form a colorful palette. The best part of the story is the language and the inventive way the author builds tension with dynamic narration and great dialog. The dialog is some of the best I've ever read, and to me it is reminiscent of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with its surprising twists and turns and they way its crazy logic works. In the end, Yossarian survives, but the question is still raised: as the only sane man in a crazy system, is he the one who's really crazy?

Grade: A