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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Childhood's End

Childhood's End is a short science fiction novel written by Arthur C. Clarke and published in 1953. Reading this book is an experience in history as well as fiction. The story is a snapshot of ideas of what the future would look like from the fifties. Adding to the experience is that realization about a third of the way through that I had read it before.

In the first part of the story aliens come to Earth in vast spaceships and enforce peace among humanity with mysterious powers. The Overlords, as they are referred to by humans, are very secretive and only communicate directly with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Stormgren. I found the widespread acceptance of this policy--that of imperial power or even slave master--to be a bit unbelievable, especially given the paranoia rampant today. There is a minority of people who are against the Overlords but they are gently neutralized. In general the people of the world are pleased with the outbreak of peace.

Part two takes place fifty years later, when the Overlords have established widespread peace and harmony and finally reveal themselves. The fact that they look like the devil is explained as a function of racial memory and the fluid nature of time. A couple, George and Jean, are at a party with an Overlord where there is a seance. Strange answers come out, including an apparently accurate answer to the question of the Overlords' home plant. Jan Rodricks, the man who asks the question, figures out a way to stow away aboard an Overlord starship and becomes the first person to leave the solar system. This section introduces the concept of parapsychology which is an important theme in the last section. It becomes apparent that there is something extra going on with the human race that the Overlords are not talking about. While the Overlords are mysterious, humanity becomes complacent.

In the third part, George and Jean's children start to change. It begins with nightmares and proceeds to telekinesis. The Overlords reveal that while they themselves are seen as powerful beings, they serve a much more powerful being. Humanity is being groomed for something higher. The end, while extraordinary bordering on the unbelievable, is quite astounding. The story is a fine piece of science fiction from a time of classic sf. The characters are mostly pretty thin and largely serve the purpose of the plot. But there is a grand sense of wonder, from the first appearance of the alien ships to the tour of an alien world that Jan Rodricks gets. The concept of humanity being transformed is an intriguing one. It brings out a sense of wonder as well as a sense of quiet loss. It's quite an achievement. B+

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

God's Politics

I don't usually read a book with "God" in the title unless it is along the lines of God is not Great or The God Delusion. But I had heard of Jim Wallis before so I thought that he might have something different to say about religion and politics. While reading God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It I was struck by what he says and how different his message is from the usual political discourse in America.

Wallis's central theme is that religious voters should vote with the core message of Jesus, namely peace, love, and charity. He is not pleased with the Christian fundamentalists who have taken over religious discussions in the country in the name of Jesus yet seem to have forgotten Jesus's teachings. His critique of the Christian Right is spot on, accusing them of only caring about abortion and gay marriage, and in fact supporting policies that make poverty worse. Wallis urges liberals to open up about their religious views and how they inform their politics. He is against what he calls "secular fundamentalism", the push from the left to keep religion out of politics. I think he has a decent point here, but he forgets President Obama's recent words on this subject: that any call for change in law or policy must have a legitimate secular purpose, regardless of the religious inspiration. What fears liberals and libertarians is the calls for laws based solely on flimsy religious grounds.

Wallis pushes for justice for the poor and underprivileged in the United States and around the world. He labels budgets "moral documents". Where a family or government spends its money is the clearest indication of its moral values. He rightly calls it shameful that our national policies promote wealth accumulation for the wealthy and give little help to the poor. He has been involved with promoting debt forgiveness for developing nations.

A good portion of the book, which was published in 2005, concerns the Iraq war. Wallis slams the politics of fear that followed 9/11. He contrasts the rhetoric for the war with the concepts of just war, which he believes the Iraq war was not. The leaders in England were still discussing alternatives to war while the American administration had already made the decision to invade. He promotes the idea that those who are against war must be able to suggest viable alternatives--which were certainly available for the Iraq war. He also shows that for peace to be a viable option there must be widespread justice and rule of law.

Wallis does make some claims that I find dubious or even misleading. He makes the claim that religious faith has been a driving force for progressive causes (he refers to Martin Luther King often). There may be some truth to this, but the honest assessment is that religion has been more of a hindrance to issues such as abolition of slavery, women's rights, and marriage equality for gays. He does criticize the religious right's support for the death penalty. But he criticizes both sides of the abortion debate, a move that I believe goes too easy on the right. He mentions President Clinton's move to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare", but then dismisses any progress made on the Democrat's watch. The abortion rate going down is a success that should be lauded by both sides. And he completely misses the biggest reasons for the high abortion rate, namely sex education and access to contraception, which religious people are often against. In spite of these critiques, the book is a refreshing look at the real moral issues concerning our country. A-

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010


1776 is an historical look at the year that was the turning point in the birth of our country. Written by David G. McCullough, it details the military maneuvers of George Washington and the British commander General William Howe. He details the struggles of the troops, as well as Washington's struggle to keep his army together.

The year starts with Washington and the Continental Army outside Boston, trying to figure out how to get the British out of the city. King George III had just urged Parliament to vote for war against the rebels instead of reconciliation, and the war vote was strongly approved. General Howe underestimates the rebels, but Washington proves to be indecisive. When he does suggest invading the city, his generals fortunately vote against the idea. Finally he latches onto the idea of taking the high ground of Dorchester Heights with artillery that one officer brings from the north. When the British see the Americans' advantage, they quickly evacuate the city.

This triumph in the winter is followed by the abysmal failure in New York in the summer. After Washington decides to take the army to New York, the British bring in a vast armada of ships with reinforcements. The British quickly land on Long Island, and in one of Washington's blunders, they march through a pass guarded with only a few men and continue to drive the Americans across the East River. With their domination of the waters and their overwhelming forces, the British quickly drive the Americans from New York. McCullough goes into detail about each military engagement, also describing the discussions among generals on each side. He also discusses the poor shape of the American army, many of whom lack decent weapons or clothes. One particular detail was the trail of blood one group of soldiers left on the ground after a forced march with no shoes.

The war was one of the darkest times of our country, and we only won because of the determination of men like Washington and a lot of luck. Washington was always trying to figure out how to keep his army together, with re-enlistment coming up and his men wanting to return to their farms and families. Morale was low all around as the army retreated through New Jersey and across the Delaware to Pennsylvania. With much of his army set to leave on January 1, he was desperate to make an inspirational move to keep the revolution from falling apart. On December 25 he took his army across the Delaware to attack the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, taking them by surprise and achieving a stunning victory. With this and the victory at Princeton, the Americans increased the morale and struck a blow against British confidence.

While I was expecting more about the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the political environment of the colonies, the story of Washington and his generals and their ragtag army is very engaging. Washington comes across as very human, concerned about renovations to his home even while he considers how to outmaneuver Howe. Washington was in a poor situation in New York, with the sea superiority of the British, but he kept trying his best, even when his mistake led to hundreds of his troops captured at Fort Washington. I found the perseverance of Washington and his men most inspiring. Though never sure of his abilities, he was dedicated and loyal to the cause. Much of the story is about the relationship between Washington and his generals, including some negative remarks about Washington's poor decision making. There is a lot of drama there, as well between the people of Boston and New York and the armies. The book is history come to life, like it should be. A-

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Monday, August 16, 2010


Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection is a graphic novel compilation of Native American trickster stories edited by Matt Dembicki. It delivers several stories based on American Indian trickster stories, each written and drawn by a different writer and artist. The art styles are varied, visually appealing, and quite colorful.

The first story is "Coyote and the Pebbles", a great example of a creation myth. The people gather pebbles to place in the sky as stars. But coyote trips and spills his pebbles all over the place, creating a messy sky. "Rabbit and the Tug-of-war" is a fun story about Rabbit tricking two buffaloes into a tug-of-war against each other, and tricking them again when they discover the ruse.

I got the book thinking my kids would enjoy it, and they sure did. Bedtime brought calls of "Trickster!" They both enjoyed "Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale", about how the talkative and pushy Rabbit gets tricked by Fox. Rabbit wants the fish that Fox has so bad that he follows Fox's advice to stick his tail in the frozen water, and it comes off when he tries to yank it out of the ice. We also got a kick out of "Giddy up Wolfie", about how Rabbit tricks Wolf into letting him ride him in front of his girlfriend.

There are some darker stories too, many filled with mythic elements. There is "Dangerous Beaver", about five brothers who are tricked and killed by the beaver, except for the fifth brother who receives advice from another creature. In "When Coyote Decided to Get Married", Coyote turns his potential brides and their families to stone after one of the women turns out to not be pure. In "Espun and Grandfather", the raccoon Espun is flattened by a large rock until he convinces a group of ants to rebuild him.

The art in the stories matches the tone of the stories themselves. They range from gloomy to silly to mischievous to hopeful. It is a fun set of stories for the whole family. A-

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Return to Lankhmar

Return to Lankhmar is Fritz Leiber's third installment in the Lankhmar series. It consists of two previously published books: The Swords of Lankhmar, a short novel, and Swords and Ice Magic, a collection of short stories.

It was refreshing to read a novel-length adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Leiber excels in the short format, and I was a little unsure whether he could pull off a longer story. But The Swords of Lankhmar is an exciting story from end to end. It starts with the two rogues taking a job as guards on a flotilla taking loads of grain in payment to Movarl of the Eight Cities for removing the sea of pirates. The mission is complicated by a young lady named Hisvet and her dark slave girl Frix. Hisvet is transporting twelve white rats as an additional gift to the foreign ruler. In fact, it soon becomes an issue whether there are eleven rats or twelve in the cages, after one of the ships in the flotilla sinks amid a swarm of rats--one of them white. Both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fall under the sway of the alluring Hisvet. Hisvet's father Hisven arrives to lead the rats to their takeover of the ship, but the rats are foiled by a traveler from another world.

Even after they see the rest of the grain safely transported to its destination, things continue to go wrong. Hisvet and Hisven have hurried back to Lankhmar's ruler Glipkerio with stories of how they saved the ships from the rats. The Gray Mouser has to play a careful game with Glipkerio and Hisvet and the rats. After taking a potion given to him by his magical mentor, he shrinks to rat size and must navigate the rat underworld to figure out what is going on in Lankhmar. After avoiding trouble over and over, he finally is backed into a corner when Fafhrd returns at the last moment to save him. I enjoyed the trouble that the Gray Mouser gets in and out of, and Fafhrd's long trek from the Eight Cities to help him. It's a great adventure with alluring characters in tough situations.

The stories in Swords and Ice Magic start off short and get longer. One of the memorable ones is "Under the Thumbs of the Gods", which has the adventuresome pair encountering a vision with all of their lost loves, courtesy of the gods who feel miffed. The last two stories form a pair. "The Frost Monstreme" provides two women from the Rime Isle who claim that their island is soon to be attacked by the Mingols. They offer gold to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to each bring twelve barbarians or thieves to the island in three months. As the fateful day approaches, the two men sail their ships through a great fog, not realizing that a powerful spirit is plotting evil and conniving to get them to fight each other.

The final story is a "Rime Isle", about the two adventurers' struggle to protect the island against the invading Mingols. But first they have to deal with a town full of folk wary of them, two wayward gods, a vast whirlpool, and the invisible flyers from Stardock. Fafhrd must deal with the women of Stardock when his past comes to haunt him. The Gray Mouser finds himself in the strange situation of being a leader of men, when he's used to being a loner and somewhat of an outcast at that. But he excels in his role, including in a hilarious scene when he blacks out and can't remember what he said in his speech to rally the villagers.

Leiber is playful in his fun plots. He's not afraid to bring in a strange element from outside the story, or sometimes two or three. Finding Odin on Rime Isle is both a pleasant surprise but also just part of the story. And in many ways Loki and the Gray Mouser are two parts of the same element. I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second part, though both were fun. B+

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