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, June 25, 2010

Ship of Magic

Robin Hobb's Ship of Magic is a family drama set in a fantasy world where ships made of wizardwood quicken after three generations and gain sentience. The magic ships can sense their crew and cargo and the winds and the current; they can communicate with their "family" and sail better than an ordinary vessel. The novel is about the liveship Vivacia and the Vestrit family that sails her.

Althea Vestrit is a young woman whose family liveship is close to quickening. When her ailing father dies on the deck of the ship, the figurehead comes to life. Althea and Vivacia have a strong bond thanks to the years that Althea spent on the ship with her father. However Althea's brother-in-law Kyle Haven, who is in charge of the family fortunes, has different plans for the ship. He sees Althea as a spoiled girl who should stay at home and take care of family business instead of doing men's work on a ship. Althea is heartbroken that she cannot be with her ship, and angry at Kyle for keeping them apart. She swears that she will prove herself as a sailor, ending up posing as a ship's boy to get experience and validation in the form of a ship's ticket. This proves to be a big lesson for her. She realizes how easy she had it as the daughter of the ship's captain. She changes from being a spoiled girl to being a wary young woman.

Wintrow Haven is the thirteen-year-old son of Kyle Haven and Althea's sister Keffria. At the start of the story Wintrow is at a monastery. He was sent there against his will four years earlier but has settled well and believes he has found his calling. After coming home to be with his family at the death of his grandfather, his father Kyle forces him to abandon the monastic life and live aboard the Vivacia, who requires a Vestrit to be aboard her. Wintrow is devastated, and Vivacia is distraught at having an unwilling family member aboard her instead of the loving Althea. Wintrow cannot please his cruel and demanding father. He finally adjusts well to the ship (Vivacia is his only friend on board), but decides he must jump ship and try to make his way to his monastery.

Ronica Vestrit is the widow of Ephron Vestrit who finds herself in an awkward position. She is dismayed at Kyle's treatment of her grandson but is powerless to act. Moreover, she must help her daughter Keffria raise Keffria's adolescent daughter Malta. Malta is headstrong and ready for the benefits of being a young woman, but has no understanding of the commitments she is involving herself with. Malta realizes how she can manipulate her father, yet she must live with her mother and grandmother while Kyle is sailing the ship.

Kennit is a pirate captain who has grand designs that include the capture of a liveship. He makes a deal with his first mate Sorcor that they will pursue a slave ship for every liveship they pursue. Kennit becomes a hero to the slaves that they free. And in the Vestrit's home of Bingtown a mad blind liveship sits and waits in solitude with occasional visits from friends and strangers.

This story is about these characters and others. Althea and Wintrow and their family are complex and growing. Even Vivacia is a complex character who changes throughout the story. The story is more dramatic with the constant theme of slavery, which moves from the background to take a central role in the story. Kyle's decision to use the liveship as a slave ship has serious consequences. I hadn't expected such a hard look at the evils of slavery but the story swept me up and kept me involved. The troubles of the Vestrit are engrossing and make for a great story. The story mixes fantasy and ships in a fresh new blend. A-

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was published in 1997, years before Collapse. Diamond covers what he calls "history's broadest pattern," how the peoples of Eurasia were able to increase food production over the past 13,000 years and proceed to acquire technology that enabled the West to conquer most of the rest of the world. Diamond opens with a pivotal incident in history: Pizarro's defeat of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa and his 80,000 soldiers with only 168 Spanish warriors. The author asks the central question of the book: How did Pizzaro end up traveling thousands of miles to defeat the Incan emperor instead of an Incan warrior traveling thousands of miles to defeat the Spanish king? He steps back from proximate causes to explore the ultimate causes that led to the acquisition of so much technology and power.

The core of Diamond's argument is that Eurasia was better suited to provide for human population growth that the other continents. Eurasia contained many plants and animals that were domesticable, whereas the other continents did not. Native Americans domesticated corn, but other than that did not find other plants that could be farmed. The Americas, Australia, and New Guinea were devoid of large mammals that could be domesticated. Africa had many large animals but paradoxically most were not domesticable. Diamond was very thorough in discussing the difference in native plants and animals between the continents, including differences in seeds of plants and the natures of wild animals. He points out that elephants have been tames but never domesticated.

Another advantage of Eurasia was the east-west orientation of the land, which made the climate relatively consistent from one end to the other. Innovations in food production and other technology were able to spread to the east and west from the fertile crescent. Africa has a north-south orientation and straddles the equator, resulting in vast climate differences from one end of the continent to the other. Deserts and jungles proved to be insurmountable obstacles to the spread of crops and livestock. Likewise the Americas have a north-south orientation and many obstacles to the spread of people and ideas, including mountain ranges and the isthmus of Panama.

What this led to was two important factors that led to the primacy of Eurasian culture. First, the production of food with agriculture and animal domestication was efficient and productive enough to replace the food gathering lifestyle. However in other areas of the world agriculture did not provide enough nourishment to replace hunting and gathering. The second factor is that lifestyle and technologies were able to spread much fast in Eurasia than other areas. Ideas such as writing or the wheel were able to be adopted more widely. The increase in food and the increase in population fueled each other in a catalyzing spiral.

I enjoyed the meticulous detail that Diamond brings to the book. He describes and compares the many factors of culture that led to the primacy of Eurasian life. He gives a history of the peoples of Africa to illustrate how different cultures interact and conquer each other. He has a depth of knowledge about botany, anthropology, geography and other disciplines. The book builds a solid case for the unique advantages provided by Eurasia and dismisses any racial basis for the supremacy of Western culture. It provides a strong case for the driving force of human history. A-

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