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.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Night of the Gun

The Night of the Gun is a memoir written by David Carr of his addiction to cocaine and his recovery. He spent much of his young adult life looking for his next high. He progressed from snorting cocaine to smoking crack to shooting cocaine. Somehow he managed to keep steady work as a journalist, despite letting his employers down and getting fired from multiple jobs.

The difference between this story and other memoirs is that Carr has turned his journalist skills on his own life. He has researched his past and examined court records and interviewed those who knew him during his addiction. The title refers to a night when he got into an argument with a friend and went to the friends house and his friend had to wave a gun at him to get him to leave. Only when he interviews his friend about the incident, he learns that it was he himself who had the gun. He has trouble believing this at first, since he considers himself the sort of person who would not own a firearm. But he believes this new version when he talks to another friend who says that he helped Carr retrieve a gun from his home. The narrative becomes more than just a description of events but also a comparison of memories and the actual events of records. He discusses the past with friends who remember completely different perspectives on the same events. He talks about how memories change over time and they are filtered through later memories and one's perspective of oneself. This improves the narrative over just a description of hazy memories originally created in a haze of chemicals.

Carr progresses from being a user into being a dealer to support his habit. He juggles a relationship with two women, including Anna, a divorced mother of two who is a cocaine dealer with many connections. He takes advantage of Anna's access to cocaine, and soon most of their profits are getting up their noses or being smoked. They can't even stop when Anna gives birth to twin girls, crack babies who are premature and underweight. Carr has an insight one night when he leaves the girls alone and asleep in a car one night while he visits a dealer and loses track of time. He finally hands his children over to his parents and enters a last chance treatment facility for six months. When he emerges sober and clean he realizes that Anna is still using and end up with the children. They end up in a long custody battle, but with some luck and Anna's inability to stay clean he's granted sole custody. His girls become the anchor that keep him away from drugs.

Carr manages to put his life back together and make a good life for his girls, with the help of friends and family. But years later he starts drinking and it gets out of control. Somehow the memory of his addiction had faded and he thought he could deal with it. After he's arrested for DWI he goes back into treatment and manages to get sober again.

The story is interesting and it's told very well. Carr is a great writer and he deals with his own past with a good deal of objectivity. He presents different views of events and people's interviews. Some of the details get a bit indulgent (a hazard for a memoir), especially in the period after his recovery and leading to his relapse. But overall he paints a vivid picture of addiction and recovery. B+

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mother Night

Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night is a short novel told from the point of view of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a fictional American writer who wrote and broadcast Nazi propaganda during World War II. Campbell's narration switches between historical scenes and recent scenes when he is in an Israeli prison awaiting trial for war crimes.

Campbell tells how as a young playwright living in Germany he became involved with the Nazi party and an American intelligence agent recruits him to send secret messages to U.S. agents in his broadcasts. While publicly he is a famous Nazi, privately he knows he is doing important work for the German resistance and providing critical intelligence to the U.S. Yet he is only known as a Nazi to the whole world except for the man who recruited him as a spy. His private self and public self are diametrically opposed. This concept is strengthened when his privacy is broken and he becomes adored by a despicable white supremacist and his hateful cohorts. The supremacists laud him for the very acts he is most ashamed of, and he has to ironically endure their praise for his despicable acts.

The theme of dual identities is also played out in Campbell's neighbor George Kraft. Kraft is really a Soviet spy who outs Campbell's identity. Campbell is also reunited with his long lost wife Helga, but then finds out she is really Helga's younger sister Resi. In the end he is left alone, wondering about his fate, when he finally receives a letter from his intelligence contact confirming that he worked as an American spy.

This novel presents an interesting dilemma. What if the person the world knows you as is different than your true self. Vonnegut in the introduction says the moral is: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Vonnegut plays with the theme in his usual darkly humorous way. Campbell is hounded by his public deeds. The book is funny, but not as funny as some of Vonnegut's other works. The concept seemed a little thin for a whole book, though Vonnegut does well with it. B

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Infinity Beach

Jack McDevitt's Infinity Beach is a first contact novel set centuries in the future when humanity has spread to nine worlds and has begun to accept that there is no other life in the universe. Life is easy for most people, and they only have to work if they want more than the minimum support. Dr. Kimberly Brandywine is a trained astrophysicist working as a public relations spokesperson for the Seabright Institute, an organization devoted to promoting science and discovery.

After an old professor sparks her curiosity, Kim begins delving into the case of her clone sister, who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years earlier. Emily and her crew mate Yoshi vanished after returning from an aborted mission to search for life in a distant area of the galaxy. Both of the other members of the crew are dead, one of them also mysteriously. Kim goes with her friend Solly to visit the abandoned home of one of the missing crew members and is spooked by something she thinks she sees there.

Kim does some more snooping; apparently her former professor has opened up a secret desire in her to find the truth. She speaks to the son of one of the crew and discovers he has in his office a strange model of a starship which used to be his father's. She sneaks into the archives to steal the mission logs and deduces that the logs have been faked. Then she dives into the lake that flooded the last crew member's house and discovers two things: a mural that he drew of Emily holding the same starship that Kim saw as a model, and a strange creature made of mist.

After finding Yoshi's body in the lake, Kim and Solly steal a starship and fly it to the star system where they suspect the failed mission actually found an alien presence. They find evidence of contact with an alien ship, and then a probe flies at them and attaches to their ship. They pry off the probe, but then on the way home they encounter strange things, and Kim becomes convinced that some sort of mist creature like she encountered at the lake has taken control of the ship. When they reach their home planet, Solly has Kim escape in the lander while he scuttles the ship to keep the creature from sending home their location.

Amazingly, Kim manages to keep her job. With some more investigation and some more intrigue, she convinces some of her coworkers to borrow a ship to go back to the planet. She takes the model ship, which is in fact a real alien vessel, and takes it back to the aliens. This opens up a dialog with aliens.

This book takes some weird turns. Kim takes a nugget of doubt and turns it into a mission. She turns out to have a lot of skills and learns a lot about herself along the way. Some of it seems like she's on autopilot, with barely a thread of motivation. But the mystery keeps building, and she keeps unraveling it.

The plot does seem a bit realistic. I can buy the basic setup of the culture that is laid back and blase about the possibility of alien life, and basically satisfied with its safe existence. In this way, this is a good story of breaking through the ennui of a culture and making a historic discovery. But what bothers me is that many of Kim's exploits seem too easy. There's little security in any of her targets. It's ridiculously easy to steal the ship. She explores abandoned ruins and lakes, and there's no press coverage about the decades-old mystery she's solving, nor any police investigation into the events. A truly advanced civilization would have an advanced security force, not to mention military. Sometimes things seem too easy for Kim. And what were the original crew thinking? When the last crew realizes they may meet an alien intelligence, we see lots of thinking about what the first crew should have considered, how to communicate, how to deal with their culture. The first expedition just seemed poorly planned and executed.

Even with these plot holes it is an entertaining book. Kim's perseverance drives the whole story, and leads to negative as well as positive results. The ending is satisfying, if a bit unrealistic. B

Monday, April 06, 2009

The God Delusion

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins discusses the phenomenon of religion from a scientific and psychological point of view. He begins with a review of agnosticism and atheism, and then soundly refutes the various "proofs" of God's existence. He does discuss the "God of the gaps", that God is the explanation that people use for phenomena that they don't yet understand. This sort of attitude is vulnerable to scientific inquiry and leads to irrational arguments against scientific discoveries. I was about to be disappointed, as all this covers familiar ground on any book on atheism. But he soon moves to more interesting subjects.

Dawkins introduces the anthropic principle, which states that any improbability of the our existence must be judged with the fact that we are here to wonder about our existence at all: we evolved on the minority of worlds capable of supporting life. Even if the odds are very tiny, we are certain that it did happen at least once. (I now wonder whether this is related to the religious idea that man is at the center of the universe and the purpose of history is to create me.)

Dawkins then talks about theories on the origins of religion. One principle pointing towards the usefulness of religion is that it is important for children to believe what their parents tell them so they can be safe. He suggests that religions may be built on other parts of our biology. And of course he mentions memes, ideas that spread themselves using the medium of the human mind. Religion is a meme that has attached itself to minds and won't go away. He brings up cargo cults and how they all sprung up in the same way around the world, an indication of how well superstition works.

The book gets more interesting when Dawkins raises questions about morality. He points out that we have a moral drive that precedes religion, and religious discussion is often worked around moral ideas that we already have. In Chapter 7, "The 'Good' Book and the Changing moral Zeitgeist", we see how depraved the God of the Old Testament is, how he commit many immoral acts. Dawkins also questions whether the New Testament is any better. He then goes on to talk about the distorted morals that are produced by modern religion.

He reserves his strongest language when he talks about how children are indoctrinated into religion, in the chapter titled "Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religions". Indeed, for many children, the idea of Hell is very psychologically damaging. It seems that many religions don't feel they can survive without putting a strong fear into children, as if the finality of death is not enough. Finally, Dawkins discusses ways to fill the needs of inspiration and consolation that religion provides.

Despite the weak intro, the book finishes strong. (I suppose dispensing with proofs of God is mandatory for any book of this type.) He covers religion from many angles without getting too deep into any. I really appreciate the discussion of religion and morality and the evolutionary basis for morality. Dawkins enlightened me on subjects such as group selection and theories on the origins of religion. I didn't necessarily need to learn more of Yahweh's atrocities in the Bible, but it's always entertaining to hear about.

I have studied religion from a philosophical, psychological, and anthropological point of view. Dawkins doesn't discuss these last two much, other than talking about wish fulfillment and invisible friends. I don't know if he considers other views of religion as relevant, but what he does provide is a good picture of a scientific, biological view. A-

Note: I have read comments on Amazon and elsewhere claiming that Dawkins is out of his field with this book and should stick to biology and leave theology to the experts. I see two problems with this criticism. The first is pretty obvious: Does anyone really need any specific expertise in imaginary creatures to debunk their existence? What does it really mean to study theology, which is a study of "supernatural" inventions? Everybody has an opinion on the existence of God, regardless of their education in specifics. And different religions invent different variations, so does each one need to be studied in each religion in order to refute them in turn?

The other critique is that of all people, Dawkins is a scientist in a strong position to discuss the persistence of religion as a human invention, with his invention of the concept of memes and how they propagate. I think he brings a good perspective on the issue. His comments on religion as an evolutionary product are enlightening.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep?

One of the first things I noticed about reading Philip K. Dick's Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep? is that it's very different from Blade Runner, the movie made from it. The differences are not only with the plot but also the characters and the overall tone.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who hunts down and destroys androids (this much is the same as the movie). Before he destroys them he administers an empathy test. The androids are as smart as humans but they lack empathy, so that is how he tells the difference. Deckard is assigned to destroy six androids when one of the other officers is shot and injured by one. He is nearly killed by one of the androids who pretends to be a Russian cop. Then he tracks down a female android who is posing as an opera singer.

It is while trying to capture Luba Luft that he is faced with a challenging question. She points out that if lack of empathy is a characteristic of androids, then Deckard could be an android, since he has no empathy for the androids he destroys. He is more confused when she summons another cop who claims not to know him and takes him to a completely different police station. There his world is thrown upside down, since it seems a mirror version of the world he knows, with different targets and different empathy tests. But one of the officers, Phil Resch, shoots the police investigator when he tries to shoot the Resch and Deckard, and Resch helps him escape. The investigator prove to be an android. He tells Deckard that he had suspected his superiors were androids. Now he is uncertain whether he may be an android, implanted with false memories. Likewise, Deckard is wondering if he may be an android. He witnesses Resch's viciousness in killing Luba Luft and can't tell if it means Resch is more likely to be an android because of this or whether Deckard himself is is more likely to be an android due to his cold nature toward the androids. This is the kind of ambiguousness, the questioning of the foundations of one's world, that Dick excels at.

With the bounty money he collects Deckard puts the down payment on a goat to keep. The world is suffering from the fallout of a deadly dust, and there are few living things. The remaining population is obsessed with keeping living things; those who can't afford a real pet will keep a fake one. The goat replaces Deckard's electric sheep, and he and his wife feel elated at owning such an expensive real animal.

Before he can go to sleep for the night, Deckard is ordered to find and kill the remaining androids. He calls up Rachael Rosen, the android at the corporation that manufactures them, and asks for her help. She agrees and meets him at a hotel room. After discussing the remaining targets, they make love. Rachael believes that he won't be able to kill any androids anymore, especially the one that is a copy of her.

Isidore, a young man who is a special, with lowered mental capacity, befriends the remaining androids and promises to protect them. But he is horrified when Pris, the copy of Rachael, takes a spider he has found and begins cutting off its legs. Their cold attitude toward life is a stark contrast to the human's craving for living things, which is heightened in the sterile world.

When Deckard arrives he kills the androids then becomes disoriented. When his wife tells him that someone killed their goat, he despairs. He drives far away and discovers what he believes is a real toad, which were supposed to be extinct. When he takes it home to his wife she reveals the false interior. Finally, his despair mixed with elation, he settles down to sleep.

This is a fascinating book full of contrasts. Living and false animals, living humans and androids, a dead world and a living group hallucination where humans experience empathy together. The author makes a point of questioning the difference between humans with empathy and the cold androids. One of the androids claims that empathy is just something humanity made up to feel superior to androids. Indeed, the humans themselves use mood organs to make them feel things, so perhaps that is a point. The lines become blurred.

I can understand the question of whether Deckard is an android, and it's definitely brought to the center of attention in the book, more so than in the movie. My opinion is that he is not literally an android but his questioning is only a metaphor. He wonders if his coldness towards the androids means that he is just like them. He compares himself to Resch, and is only confused when Resch turns out to be human.

This is a great example of setting affecting the plot and characters. The stark world leads the characters to seek the consolation of living things. It highlights the conflict between the humans and androids and brings the emotions into contrast. The philosophical questions raised are interesting. A