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, October 29, 2010

Rabbit, Run

John Updike's Rabbit, Run was published in 1960. It describes a kind of aborted domestic life: Harry Angstrom (known as Rabbit from his high school basketball career) gets fed up with his pregnant wife and young son and abruptly leaves them. The first scene is symbolic of his extended or renewed adolescence when he joins some children in a street basketball game. The children look at him askance, echoing the reader's dubiousness over his behavior.

Rabbit leaves the apartment he shares with his wife Janice and picks up his car. But instead of taking his son home he gets in his car and starts driving. He drives south from his Pennsylvania town keeps driving until the early morning hours. He finally gives up on his adventure and returns to town. He finds his old coach Tothero and sleeps in his room for the day, then the two of them go out to meet Tothero's female friend and a younger female friend. Tothero is a strong father figure to Rabbit, and looms larger than his own father.

Harry starts a romance with the younger friend, Ruth. He doesn't mind that she makes a living through prostitution, and she quickly takes him in and lets him live with her. Harry has basically no contact with his wife and family except through Jack Eccles, an Episcopal priest. Eccles pushes Harry to reconcile with his wife, though he is pretty much the only person who wants to see them together again. Even while Harry lives with Ruth he is aware of Eccles' church across the street. He selfishly abandons his old life with Janice. Eccles' conversations with him only seem to boost his confidence that he is doing the right thing.

When Eccles calls one night to tell Harry that Janice is in labor, Harry dutifully leaves Ruth and goes to the hospital. Harry and Janice reconcile and enjoy their new baby, but they never discuss the fundamental problems of their relationship. They are both too immature and selfish to really be in a relationship, let alone raise children. The relationship ends in a tragedy, and Harry quickly finds himself back with Ruth, who now admits she is also pregnant. Harry is enthusiastic about her pregnancy, despite the situation with his wife. He insists that the two of them can make a life together, but the final scene has him running again, away from his responsibilities and toward selfish emptiness.

The novel centers around the personality of Harry and his relationships with Janice, Ruth, and Eccles. He cannot see anyone else's needs. While his life with Ruth focuses on sex, even when he returns to Janice he demands sex from her. Harry wants to return to his former carefree young life, not the everyday existence of being a grownup. To him, Eccles is just another authority figure who wants him to constrain himself. Eccles is earnest but barely capable. Janice is not much more mature than Harry. While she can carry a child, she cannot take care of one. She leaves most of the work to her mother. Ruth's primary virtue is that she fails to abort her pregnancy and is willing to keep the baby for Harry's sake.

There are several parallels in the story. The fatherly behavior of Eccles is contrasted with Tothero, who introduces Harry to his mistress. But even Tothero urges Harry to stay with his wife. Ruth and Janice are both poor mother figures. Harry runs between the two women, fighting between the urge to do the right thing and the fear of being trapped. Updike's language is strong and personal. Harry's struggles really come through, despite his immature and selfish actions. The novel is a touching picture of an immature person caught in an adult world. A-

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Rides a Dread Legion

Rides a Dread Legion is the first book by Raymond E. Feist I've read. It is the first book in the Demonwar Saga, however I discovered while reading it that it draws heavily on Feist's previous series. There are constant references to characters long dead and battles decades old. While this gives the novel some depth, some of the references feel superfluous and irrelevant.

The Clan of the Seven Stars are a race of elves who are being slaughtered by armies of demons that overwhelm their worlds. They are making a last stand on their last world but have discovered a world through a portal that they believe to be their ancient home. Gulamendis is an elf who is treated as an outcast because he works with demon magic, and others are suspicious that such a magician is the cause of the demon attacks. Gulamendis travels to Elvandar, where he finds a large settlement of elves who stayed on the home world, Midkemia. While awed by the beauty and power he finds there, he knows that his people will see all the other peoples of the home world as subjects for their dominion.

Amirantha is a human magic user in Midkemia who makes a living by conjuring demons and banishing them for a fee. When one of the demons he conjures turns out to be too much for him, he realizes his brother is trying to kill him. He determines to tell someone of authority about this, and ends up on an island of magician school. Pug, the leader of the magicians, is an old man who had been in a big fight with Amirantha's other evil brother. Sandreena, a Knight-Adamant and former lover of Amirantha, arrives on the island to give her testimony about a band of thieves she encountered and the magic users with them who conjured a demon. It is clear that there is an interlacing of histories here, and nearly everyone is tied to everyone else in some way.

While Pug and his son travel through a portal to another world for research, Gulamendis returns to where his people are coming through their portal to make a homestead to retreat to. Tomas, the Warleader of Elvandar, flies a golden dragon to the homestead to make peace overtures to the returning elven people. Meanwhile, Amirantha and Sandreena and some other magicians try to stop Amirantha's brother, but end up caught in an ambush.

The book suffers from a feeling that it is largely exposition and building up to something. The events at the end are a tragedy that strikes the group, but it is clear that this is just the beginning of a larger story. The novel doesn't stand up well as a single story. I know that trilogies are tricky, especially trying to make each installment satisfying as a complete story while building towards something else. This worked very well with the Fire Logic series.

While the history of the world felt complex, otherwise it felt shallow. I didn't get much of a sense of the cultures of the world. The observations of Gulamendis as he enters Elvandar are a strong point. Most of the characters are drawn one dimensionally, with the exception of Sandreena and Gulamendis, and to an extent Amirantha. I wonder if the author was relying too much on a history that he would expect his readers to remember. The book has good potential but it doesn't quite live up to expectations. C+

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Hellhound on his Trail

Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin is a detailed historical account of King's last days and James Earl Ray's life in the months leading up to his assassination of King. Hampton Sides researched many accounts of King, and pulled together the available facts about Ray's travels. The result is a chilling account of a racist determined to strike at a famous black leader.

Ray escaped from the state penitentiary in Jefferson City Missouri and made his way to Puerto Vallarta Mexico. He was a small time crook and drug dealer, running through the cash he had accumulated in prison. He leaves Mexico and goes to Los Angeles where he continues drinking, doing drugs, and visiting prostitutes. Ray was a loner and mostly kept to himself. The few people who remembered him could only vaguely recall his appearance; he looked like an nondescript average business man. He was good at keeping a low profile. He knew where to find the flophouses and cheap hotels in any city.

Meanwhile, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference travel to Memphis to show solidarity with the garbage workers strikers. When the march turns violent, King and the others decide that they must return to Memphis for a peaceful march. King was also pushing for Poor People's March in Washington, D.C. in the summer, to bring attention to people of all colors in poverty. Yet King was troubled. He was aware of threats on his life, and felt like he was fated to meet a violent end.

I was struck by the contrast between King's earnest push for peace and justice, and Ray's pure hatred. While King devoted his life to bringing people together, Ray's life was all about living for himself day to day, enjoying women, and finding the next scam. King was a leader with many people looking up to him. Ray was a nobody with no meaningful relationships. Everybody Ray met barely knew him, and he was out of town within months.

Ray traveled to Atlanta to try to get close enough to King to kill him. But he was stymied until he read that King would be returning to Memphis for another march. His one shot at King was the result of a snap decision soon after he checked into the boarding house. Another snap decision would be the crucial evidence linking him to the crime: he dumped the box with the rifle so as not to be conspicuous while walking to his car.

The rifle and a witness account of Ray's car led to many other clues. It was interesting to read about the FBI's vast search through Ray's strange past. The FBI, which had been monitoring King and running a smear campaign against him, spared no effort to find the assassin. Ray made his way to Canada and then England, where the New Scotland Yard finally apprehended him as he tried to make his way to the racist African state of Rhodesia. Paradoxically, the FBI's bad relationship with King led to them being driven to find his assassin so that they would be above suspicion for the crime. Finding Ray was not easy, for he was very crafty.

The story unfolds dramatically as the two men march toward destiny. Sides brings a great amount of detail to the events, from the Southern traditions of Memphis to the particulars of Ray's lifestyle. He really captures the turbulent times. King's death led to riots across the country, and soon Robert Kennedy would be killed. Yet the SCLC returned to Memphis to lead a peaceful march. A silent march, King's wife Coretta was one of the leaders. The story is vast in its scope and filled with great detail, a truly human story. A

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