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 29, 2010

The Varieties of Scientific Experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a compilation of Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures in 1985. In the lectures he presents a scientific view of the universe as well as a logical approach to the idea of God. The first lecture starts with images and descriptions of our solar system and the neighboring space around us. Sagan shows a great sense of awe at the vastness and variety of the universe.

In the following chapters he discusses the anthropic principle and the organic matter that is in the rest of the universe. He points out how pervasive organic compounds are throughout our solar system and beyond. Then he talks about something he is well known for, the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. He points out the difficulties of communication across the expanse of the cosmos. He also brings up the historical mistakes and blunders, such as the canals of Mars and the classical belief that the planets were kept in motion by God's hand.

In the last few lectures Sagan brings a logical and methodical view of the existence of God. He deftly debunks standard arguments for God's existence. He contrasts Western and Eastern views of the gods. Next he points out the biological basis for many religious experiences, namely chemicals such as epinephrine. Each scientific discovery like this makes God's domain more and more remote. He describes this well in chapter 3, "The Organic Universe": "So as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. ... evolving before our eyes has been a God of the Gaps; that is, whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. And then after a while, we explain it, and so that's no longer god's realm. The theologians give that one up, and it walks over onto the science side of the duty roster." I've never seen a more cogent explanation for the God of the Gaps.

I found the last section of questions and answers the most interesting. A dialogue of back and forth discussion is usually more interesting and a one-way lecture. The attendees at the lectures ask some interesting questions and he responds well. Apparently bringing a scientific approach to religion was controversial and didn't sit well with all the attendees. In a response to a questioner to proposed that "God is love", he gives a cogent rebuttal ending with the summary, "So my proposal is that we call reality 'reality,' that we call love 'love,' and not call either of them God, which has, while an enormous number of other meanings, not exactly those meanings." It is refreshing to read such a clear definition that does away with so much nonsense, which has a way of infecting discourse.

Though the book is short it is full of good information and thoughtful analysis. Sagan is known as a good science writer and he doesn't disappoint here, even though these we lectures given to a live audience. It would have been a fascinating experience to have been there. Many of the arguments he makes aren't new but he expresses them well and shows a depth of knowledge about astronomy and the rest of the universe of science. It's well worth the read. A-

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Un Lun Dun

China Mieville's Un Lun Dun is a light fantasy novel in stark contrast to his fabulous but dark Perdido Street Station. Two young girls find a way into an alternate version of London called UnLondon, where one, Zanna, is declared to be the chosen one who will save the city from the Smog. Zanna and her friend Deeba encounter all sorts of fabulous people and things, such as a boy who is half-ghost and a bus conductor who also conducts electricity. The story has a lot to owe to J. K. Rowling, but in many ways it is more inventive. One way it is different is that Deeba turns out to be a strong and determined central character.

Zanna and Deeba find their way to a bridge that can touch any street in the city and meet the Propheseers, people who are trying to figure out how to beat the Smog by interpreting the Book. However it soon becomes apparent that the Book doesn't know what it's talking about when Zanna becomes incapacitated. A man named Brokkenbroll who calls himself the Unbrellissimo because he controls unbrellas (umbrellas that have become broken, gone to UnLondon and turned somewhat sentient) promises to save Zanna and UnLondon by making a wary truce with the Smog. However after Deeba gets Zanna home and makes sure she is OK, Deeba realizes that Zanna doesn't remember anything and starts to worry about what's really going on in UnLondon.

Deeba uses clues from a page of the Book that it told her to rip out to climb the bookcases at a library, and ends up back in UnLondon. There she finds that the Smog has been taking over the city and realizes that Brokkenbroll is in league with the Smog, who is impersonating a scientist by filling a bag of skin with smoke. Deeba faces a steep battle proving to the Propheseers and others that they are being betrayed, and finding a way to complete the prophecy in the Book despite not being the Chosen One.

The world created by Mieville is very enchanting. Just about everything is sentient to some degree. He plays with the conventions of the formula, having the Chosen One get switched around, and when Deeba decides to skip most of the prophecy and go to the final goal. I enjoyed following Deeba, a creative and resourceful heroine. The book is light fun and an easy read. It's not as gripping and though-provoking as the last book I read by him, but it was still enjoyable. B

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Life of Pi

Yann Martels' novel Life of Pi starts in India where the narrator grows up working at his family's zoo. Pi learns about animals but he also finds an interest in God. He becomes a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu, to the consternation of his family and the frustration of the local religious leaders. Pi insists on the unity of God amid the many forms of worship, which sets him up as a sort of central unifying figure of faith.

The family closes the zoo and sends the animals away. They take a ship with some of the animals to Canada but disaster strikes when the ship sinks. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg. The hyena is bloodthirsty and eats the zebra then kills the orangutan. Now Pi discovers that underneath the tarp at the other end of is a large tiger named Richard Parker. Richard Parker emerges from the tarp and kills the hyena. For the rest of the time Pi and Richard Parker survive in a wary coexistence. Pi uses his knowledge of animal behavior to keep the tiger alive but tame. He knows that if the tiger gets too hungry he will lose his conditioning and eat Pi, though Pi provides the tiger with food and water by fishing and using water distillers.

The story on the lifeboat can be read on at least two or three levels. On the literal level are the real-life events of his survival described by Pi at the end. These are horrifying but realistic. On the metaphoric level is Pi's story of his and the tiger's uneasy existence on the lifeboat for months. I interpreted the tiger to be the dark side of Pi that reveals itself when he is threatened and helps him through a difficult time. It is the aggression or violence inside him. He must then tame it to survive, lest it overcome him. (This is reminiscent of Captain Kirk's two personalities in the episode where he becomes split in two.) One other possibility to interpret the story is the the tiger is the faith that he uses to help him survive the long ordeal at sea. This interpretation is more in line with the opening of the book and comments at the end, however the tiger's actions and Pi's relationship to it seem much more ambivalent, even negative, than his descriptions of faith. As such the themes seem a little out of sync.

Before Pi and Richard Parker make it to land they encounter a strange island of floating algae with lush trees growing providing fruit and thousands of tame meerkats. Pi determines to leave when he discovers that inside part of the trees are teeth, and the floor of the island becomes acidic at night. He calls the island carnivorous and decides that despite its seeming pleasantness he cannot stay another night. This part is an enjoyable and fantastic, though it seems to lack any metaphoric content with the rest of the story.

I enjoyed the fantastic elements of the novel even before the end where Pi gives the more literal version of the story. The description of events on the lifeboat is harrowing and suspenseful. Pi is resourceful; he figures how to keep himself and Richard Parker alive with the meager supplies on the boat. I felt that the central part of the narrative worked well with the framing, though not perfectly. The story tries to be about faith and God, but though Richard Parker stays with Pi until the end of his story and then leaves, I'm not sure that his actions and Pi's relationship with him is one of faith. The book was enjoyable on all levels. It definitely made me think. B+

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Parable of the Sower

I had never read any of Octavia E. Butler's works before so I picked up Parable of the Sower at the library recently. I found it to be hard and gritty. It is a cold and brutal look at the near future, not so much post-apocalyptic but apocalyptic of the slow sort where the world crumbles due to ignored environmental and economic problems.

The center of the story is Lauren Olamina, a black fifteen-year-old living with her father, stepmother and four half-brothers in a tough city near Los Angeles. The narrative is Lauren's diary as she writes about her life and verses of Earthseed, the religion she envisions. The United States has fallen into decay, with states closing their borders, few jobs that pay money, extreme poverty, no police to speak of, and gangs that rob and kill. Lauren and her family live in a compound of several homes, where the neighborhood has a wall and a gate and the neighbors take turns keeping watch. They survive on her father's meager earnings and doing odd jobs and harvesting acorns and fruit from their trees.

Lauren has a condition called hyperempathy which makes her feel the pain of others. This sets her up as a sacrificial lamb of sorts, since every time someone gets hurt she feels it too--everyone's pain is her pain. This also means she finds it difficult to harm others, even though there are times when she must in order to protect herself or others.

As her world continues to fall apart, Lauren builds Earthseed privately. It is a religion where the only god is change, and it promotes self-reliance, community and working for improvement. She speaks of it to nobody, least of all her minister father.

The community continues to suffer. When gangs break through the gate and burn down the neighborhood, Lauren starts walking north with two of her surviving neighbors. They form an alliance and other refugees start to join their group. Eventually the motley group makes it to a piece of land in northern California where they decide to build again, forming the first Earthseed community.

The writing is direct and simple, displaying Lauren's voice well but revealing deeper truths. The world of this near future is dark, where individuals must struggle against gangs and trust is hard to come by. Butler doesn't ease up on the violence; the characters are always fighting or on the lookout. Somehow Lauren takes the lead in creating something durable out of all this chaos. She envisions Earthseed as a religion for the stars, though it is hard to see how this could be possible in a world that can't even protect its citizens.

Lauren and the other characters are resilient, survivors in a tumultuous time. Many of the scenes were gruesome yet engaging. I found Lauren's struggles with her family and friends to be realistic; they formed an important part of her personality. She becomes a sort of mother to those around her, protecting them and urging them to make a better life. The plot itself is simplistic and seems mostly a vehicle for Lauren and her philosophy. The story is missing any big surprise or revelation that might make it a great story, but it is good for what it is. B+

Friday, January 08, 2010

2009 Review

2009 was quite a year in many respects. I read a wide variety of books: nonfiction, fiction, fantasy, science fiction, short books, long books, audio books, lecture courses. A total of 42 books, including 2 lecture courses.

I think the most memorable book I read this year was Perdido Street Station. It was a wild, surprising and emotional ride. Other memorable books were Anathem, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Foucault's Pendulum. Philip Roth's American Pastoral was also an intense story. The Savage Detectives and Matter were also good books to read.

I enjoyed Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought and I plan to read more of his works. I am a Strange Loop was also informative. And I also thought The Hero with a Thousand Faces was insightful.

I already have a stack of 10 books I received as Christmas gifts to read for the new year.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

A Sorcerer's Treason

Sarah Zettel's A Sorcerer's Treason is in that class of fantasy novels where a lonely individual discovers a path to a faraway world of magic. Moreover, in that other world she is someone important, or at least has a crucial role to play in a royal melodrama.

Bridget Lederle is a lighthouse keeper in Wisconsin who has visions. One night she pulls a strange man out of the water. Kalami is a sorcerer in the service of the dowager empress of Isavalta. He convinces Bridget that she must travel with him to Isavalta to help the empire against a threat. Bridget has no connection to our world other than her lighthouse duties, since she is alienated from the community after an illicit liaison and the suspicious death of her infant daughter.

We also follow Ananda, the princess from a rival kingdom who has married the young emperor Mikkel to unite the royal families. Unfortunately Mikkel has been under an enchantment since his wedding day, and the half-mad dowager empress is certain that Ananda is the culprit. To make things interesting, Ananda fakes being a sorceress in order to protect herself from attack, but this very tactic draws suspicion on her as Mikkel's enchantress. This situation has potential for intrigue, but I was disconcerted to learn later in the book that the marriage had been years before. Somehow it is hard to buy this situation, with constant recriminations and arguing, could go on for longer than a couple of months. Surely, I hoped, someone would step in and find a solution to the problem of Mikkel's enchantment and the dowager's accusations against Ananda.

We have suspicions about Kalami before he brings Bridget to Isavalta (even without the title giving it away), but Bridget is allowed to gain a sense of the true situation when she is kidnapped by dwarf-crows as soon as she arrives. They take her to Sakra, Ananda's personal sorcerer who has been banned from the court with all the other sorcerers who aren't Kalami. Bridget manages to escape by weaving a spell with her newly found power, only to find herself in a fairy world with the Vixen, a fox deity.

Things get more complicated as the two sorcerers vie for power, trying to gain influence over Bridget and dealing with the half-mad dowager. Bridget turns out to be resourceful and independent, as these kinds of heroines often are. She learns about her own powers and the powers arrayed against her. Her visions help her more than anything, and it turns out to be an easy plot device. It's clear from the start that the dowager cannot hold on to power for long, the question is how will she fall and what will happen to the destructive power she has literally imprisoned for years.

I found the story a bit predictable but enjoyable. There's no big surprise, but the little turns along the way carry the story. The author works with the standard fantasy devices competently. I enjoyed the introduction of the Vixen as a force of nature and chaos. There is an interesting tension between the mother who should be caring for her son and the wife who truly does. Most of the characters outside Bridget, Kalami, and Ananda are pretty flat, serving simple purposes, and the scenes involving them are formulaic. I would liken this story to Lord of Snow and Shadows, but I think Zettel has a better style and sense of drama. She does a decent job with an old type of story. B

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