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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is a novel about a pair of twins who move to London after their aunt dies and leaves them her flat. Julia and Valentina turn twenty-one and move into the flat to fulfill the terms of Elspeth's will that they must reside in the flat for one year before they can assume full ownership. Elspeth was the twin sister of their mother Edie, but the two hadn't seen each other for years due to a mysterious matter. Thus the grounds are laid for a ghost story.

Further setting the ghost story tone, the girls discover that the flat adjoins London's famous Highgate Cemetery. Elspeth's lover Robert, who lives in the flat below them, waits for months before introducing himself, spying on them and following them around town in the meantime. Living above them is an obsessive compulsive man named Martin whose wife has finally left him because he won't leave the flat.

After the twins have been in the flat for a while, they discover that Elspeth's ghost is there with them. Though only Valentina can see her nebulous shape, Elspeth can communicate via a Ouija board type of apparatus, and automatic writing with Robert. Robert loves spending time with Elspeth's ghost, but he is also falling in love with Valentina.

One of the driving forces of the drama is the relationship between the twins. Julia, the older and more dominant woman, is controlling of her sister, whom she calls Mouse. While Mouse is indeed meek, she seeks to get out from her sister's domination, but Julia is determined that they must stay together. At one point she claims this is due to the fear that they will be become like their mother and her twin sister, not speaking for decades. Valentina's struggle to free herself of her sister's influence is echoed in the subplot of Martin, who struggles to free himself of his OCD. Julia befriends Martin and provides him with medication that she thinks she tricks him into believing is just vitamins.

As Valentina becomes more weary of Julia's stifling influence, she becomes closer to Elspeth. They discover accidentally that Elspeth can pull the soul out of the kitten they have adopted. Elspeth returns the kitten's soul and it appears fine, but this gives both of them an idea. They begin to hatch a plot to help Valentina get away from Julia for good. But the question becomes, what is Elspeth's plan? She is the wild card.

While the first half of the book is a bit slow and full of exposition, the drama builds when Elspeth interacts with the living characters. With several strong characters seeking their own agendas, the drama builds. Elspeth's presence soon goes from creepy to horrifying. Robert becomes a central character who's conflicted yet driven by love. But neither the he nor the audience is sure who the love is for. The overall sense of the book is creepiness and tragedy. The cemetery, the ghost, and even Martin's entrapment in his own apartment give the story a dark edge. The events unfold naturally from the setup, if a bit predictably. The story is a satisfying ghost story without going overboard with horror and gore. B

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Sorcerer's House

The Sorcerer's House is a fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe that was released in early 2010. It features many elements familiar to Wolfe's readers: a first person narrator who is somewhat unreliable; mysterious forces that the characters must come to understand; partially human creatures; the faerie world; and at least one temptress.

The novel is a series of letters written by and to Baxter Dunn, or Bax. Bax is recently out of prison for defrauding his twin brother George and is trying to find a way to establish himself in the small town of Medicine Man. He squats in an abandoned home but discovers that he is named the new owner of the home. He is not sure of the fact himself but doesn't want to question is new luck. The house has two salient features: the rooms seem to multiply and he is always finding new parts of the house. Also, there seem to be other squatters or homeless inhabiting some rooms. He runs into a teenage boy named Emlyn in one room who is looking for a device he dropped while running from Bax--the triannulus is a sorcerous device that can help you receive what you ask it for. After Bax returns it he discovers that it works almost too well, when he keeps receiving money. In fact he learns he is also the heir to a valuable plot of land near the river.

The townspeople warn Bax of the mysterious events surrounding the house and its former owner. He is helped by Doris, a real estate agent who falls for him, and a police officer named Kate. He soon discovers a fox who can turn into a woman, a werewolf, an old man who seeks to be his butler, and Emlyn's twin brother. With the revelation that Emlyn has a twin, there is a parallel with Bax and George that begins to color the events. George is a background figure for most of the story but his existence is an influence on all the action, especially as Bax is writing most of his letters to George. While Bax declares that George is the good brother and he is the bad brother, their actions seem to contradict his belief.

As the story progresses, Bax puts together the pieces of who the former owner was (hint: it was a sorcerer) and how he came to be in its possession. Different elements start to come together, though some mysteries are red herrings. The triannulus, which had so much potential turns out not to be used later at all, though the antique car in the garage comes to have significance. The end brings the questions to a satisfying end, though I was a little disappointed at some of the loose ends. And while the epistolary format works quite well for the story, what is lacking is George's point of view. He seems like a caricature, and has a barely credible turnaround in the last pages which is unfortunately not described or explained very well. Even though it is nice to have parts where the reader must read between the lines or furnish some imagination, this could have been developed more. It also would have been nice to read more about the house, though its presence is felt even when the characters are far away. Otherwise the story is a lot of fun, wild but not too dark, full of mysterious characters and places. B+

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a short memoir by Elisabeth Tova Bailey of her long convalescence and her constant companion--the snail that a friend brings by in a flower pot. The book is actually part memoir and part science paper; in fact I am reminded of Moby Dick on a small scale.

While Bailey is confined to her bed, she begins to take a keen interest in the snail at her bedside, learning of its habits. She learns about its teeth (thousands), its slime (multi-functional and practical), and its social life (none). She begins to identify with is solitary life, since she is shut up and has little interaction with her friends or the outside world. She also finds in the snail a sense of hope. She is surprised when it lays and hatches dozens of eggs.

This is a short but touching memoir of a slow recuperation and the attachment one feels with the smallest of companions. Bailey does plenty of research about the history and study of gastropods (meaning "stomach foot") which she adds and relates to her snail's life. The reader feels for her and her slimy pets, up to the end when she is able to walk outside on her own and leave the last offspring of her original snail in the woods. B+

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Saturday, December 25, 2010


Herzog is a psychological novel by Saul Bellow published in 1964. Most of the action and dialogue occurs inside the protagonist's mind. Moses Herzog is an academic who feels he may be going crazy--he writes letters to people, both living and dead, some from his own life and others from history or philosophy. With these letters he gets a kind of therapy.

Moses' main concern is his suffering. His current suffering is due to that of his second wife Madeleine leaving him for his best friend. In addition to his young daughter June, his son Marco by his first wife is still in his thoughts. One of the sore points with him is the country house in rural Massachusetts that he bought with Madeleine. He had hoped it would be the center of their life together, but she rejected the house and its remoteness from the city life she enjoyed. We learn through Moses' memories of her visit to Boston and their friend Valentine's travel their ostensibly to have her return to her husband. However when Valentine returns for Madeleine's things, including her diaphragm, he realizes he has lost her. Despite a move to Chicago to help their relationship, Madeleine soon leaves him for Valentine and the academic life that Moses turned away from. Thus the house becomes a symbol, an abandoned monument to their failed marriage. It rests in the back of his mind as an annoying reminder of his mistakes and the way that he is used by others.

But he has done his own share of abuse. He left his first wife and had a relationship with a Japanese woman with whom he conversed in French, then left her for Madeleine. He does not have a good relationship with any woman in his life, even his elderly stepmother, whom he takes advantage of by stopping by for a quick visit and making off with his father's old gun. His father had been a poor immigrant, a bootlegger, and finally a respectable businessman. Moses' life is contrasted by his brothers, a wealthy businessman and a well connected political operative.

A good part of the novel is taken up by Herzog's ramblings, both in his letters and his attempts to make sense of his life. These parts were a little dry and difficult to read through. His insecurity in his understanding is matched by his vacillations in his life. He starts to visit a married female friend on Martha's Vineyard but immediately changes his mind and turns around to go home upon seeing her. He has a tentative relationship with a flower shop owner in New York. A visit to a courtroom gives him a chill and leads to his travel to Chicago to retrieve his father's gun. He spies on his ex-wife and daughter but realizes he could never use the gun. But after a traffic accident with his daughter in the car, he ends up in the police station for having the weapon. With the authorities present, he has a confrontation with Madeleine and survives it. His brother bails him out, and Moses meets him at the country house, where he starts to make a home, literally and figuratively rebuilding his life.

Despite the rough parts, I did enjoy reading this book. It is as close as I've ever been to being inside the mind of another person. Such feats are not easy to write. Moses is a troubled man who is trying to find a way to rebuild his life despite years of mistakes. I find it a little disappointing that he is not more a part of his children's life, though this was more acceptable for men decades ago. His writings are part of his therapy, and accordingly they describe his mental state. He is an intelligent man who can see many things quite well, except perhaps the secret to his own happiness. The effect is a full picture of why he behaves the way he does. B+

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Mind's Eye

Like his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks' latest book The Mind's Eye is a collection of case studies concerning the brain. In this case Sacks discusses the brain's perception of visual data and how it relates to the rest of the brain.

One of the most striking phenomena is when the visual cortex is deprived of all input from the eyes in cases of blindness. The brain is flexible enough that the visual cortex can take over other perceptual functions, such as hearing or touch. But Sacks shows that the experience of the blind can take many different forms. In some they go into a "deep blindness", where they remember nothing of the visual world, colors, faces, shapes. Others still have a strong perception of the visual, including having a mental map of the world and an ability to visualize the faces of those they have never seen. This is one of the strongest sections of the book, reading about the different ways of perceiving the world. It is amazing and eye-opening to learn that some blind people can "see" their hands as they play the piano or do other things with their hands.

Another interesting phenomena is the condition of alexia, the loss of the ability to read. Some patients with alexia can see perfectly well and recognize individual letters, but cannot build the letters into words. Many can even write, but can't read what they have written. Others cannot even recognize letters or other familiar symbols. Some who have lost the ability to read also lose their spacial sense, so they easily get lost in their own neighborhoods or homes. It is fascinating to learn about the different connections in the brain and how they can go wrong. Sacks is great at explaining the basic workings of the parts of the brain and also shows how little we understand.

One of the longest sections describes his experience of losing most of his sight in one eye due to a tumor. He explains how in many patients the loss of vision in one eye can lead to a loss of recognition of things on that side of the body. If there is brain damage on one side of the visual cortex then one's whole perception of that space (the opposite side of the body) can go away. Some patients don't even recognize their own arms.

Another section talks about stereoscopy, the ability to see with depth perception. This is something that most of us take for granted until we lose it, as the author did when he had the tumor. But some people live without it and don't see what the big deal is. In the case he describes, a woman was able to achieve stereoscopy after living most of her life without it and was astounded with the results. She would be surprised to see a dinosaur's head coming at her in a museum or the many depths of the leaves of a tree.

Sacks has created another wonderful look at the brain with this book. He excels at describing experiences of people from their point of view, explaining what goes wrong in the brain, and how the brain is generally understood to work when it is working normally. There is a lot we can learn about the brain from these case studies where something stops working properly. The brain's processing of vision as presented here ties to our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. Vision is related to our inner maps of the world, though our maps can be created and maintained with different sensory inputs like in the blind subjects. A-

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Time, Love, Memory

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior is a book by Jonathan Weiner about the origins of molecular and the search for the genetic roots of behavior. Weiner starts with an overview of the discovery of genes and the structure of DNA. In the early 1900's the biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan began studying fruit flies, Drosophila. Drosophila was easy to study because of its fast reproductive cycle, the ease with which its genes mutate, and the ability to look for the mutations under the microscope. Using the basics of heredity from Mendel and others, Morgan and his students were able to establish the basic theory of genetics. It is amazing to see such great science at work, especially given the basics of the tools and the rudimentary understanding they had. They had to invent the concepts from the ground up with little to go on. Without understanding how DNA was structured, they mapped the different traits to genes and in turn mapped those genes in relation to each other, based on how often they mutated at the same time. The process was brilliant.

Mapping physical traits is is a fairly straightforward matter of looking at the subjects under a microscope. But to measure behavior, different methods are required. The physicist turned biologist Seymour Benzer, the main subject of the book, was determined to track down the genetic foundations of behavior. In his first behavior experiments, he separated flies who flew towards a light from those that didn't. With this and other experiments Benzer and his associates were able to track down specific genes that codes for behaviors. After finding the appropriate mutant they would cross breed it with a mutant with a known genetic defect and look at the offspring and their offspring. The results would show where the genes were in relation to each other. In this way scientists were able to find a gene they called clock, which determines the rate that certain proteins build up and disperse in a cell, thus determining the biological clock. This gene could make a fly's metabolism run fast or slow. What's more striking is that the same gene is found in organisms throughout nature.

More experimentation led to the discovery of a gene for the flies' memory, and a gene that when mutated would direct males to court with other males. Eventually technology would enable the mapping of the entire genetic code of the fruit fly, and of course the human genome. Genes have been tied to all sorts of human behavior. Weiner cautions that the link between genes and behavior is not direct; there is embryonic development, the growth of the brain, and many factors of experience that can play a part.

The book is a blend of science experiments, science theory, biography, and political and social discussions. The men and women who made breakthroughs in genetics and molecular biology were very intelligent and very bold. Weiner explains the experiments very clearly. He also paints a great picture of Benzer and the other scientists, including their antics and their disagreements. They all come across as not just intelligent robots but humans with the drive to find the building blocks of life. Benzer is portrayed as a driven man who wants to find the origins of behavior. Despite the complex factors involved in human behavior, these scientists have gone a long way toward tracking the links from our genes to our actions. A-

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Monday, December 06, 2010

The Big Short

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine is a gripping account by Michael Lewis of the Wall Street players who made big bets against the sub-prime mortgage market and helped to bring down entire investment banks. While most of the Wall Street banks and investment firms were finding ways to pour more and more money into mortgage backed securities, a few people saw how crazy the system was and how to take advantage of it. A bond backed by mortgages might have a AAA rating, but this was based on the theory that mortgage defaults would not increase higher than about 7%. This in turned was based on the assumption that home values would continue to rise and homeowners could refinance after a few years, often with taking cash out to pay off other loans. Assumptions were built on assumptions, risk piled on risk, until few people comprehended just what they were buying and selling.

Michael Burry was a doctor who left his residency to start an investment fund based on value investing. Without much interest in human interaction, he devoted much of his time to studying the market. When he turned his attention to mortgage backed bonds he realized that they were much riskier than the market realized and tried to figure out a way to bet against them. These bonds are different than regular bonds, since different pieces of the bond might get paid off or defaulted at a time. Burry set up some of the first Credit Default Swaps, of CDS's, on subprime mortgage bonds. CDS's are a sort of insurance against the default of a bond, as a hedge against risk. Here is where Lewis explains in fascinating detail exactly how these arcane financial instruments work. He brings his experience in finance to explain how Wall Street works as well as how it fell apart.

Other plays are Steve Eisman, a hedge fund manager; and the founders of Cornwall Capital, basically two friends running their hedge fund's $110,000 in their garage. They saw that the mortgage bond market was overblown and ripe for betting against. Cornwall Capital ended up holding millions of dollars worth of CDS's against Bear Stearns and worried about their ability to collect. Lewis compares investment banks to casinos, and the analogy is very fitting. In this case the casinos let a bunch of customers make bets that appeared safe; but the customers had seen that the true odds
were much more in favor than the conventional wisdom said. When the customers all started hitting Blackjack at the same time, the house started to go bankrupt.

It is truly amazing that all the big banks took such big risks that endangered their stability and that of the whole system. The CEO's had little or no understanding of the risk they were taking, even as the system began to crumble. The mortgage bonds were separated into different tiers called tranches. Lewis carefully explains how the different tranches affected the different bondholders who owned them. He also explains how the lowest tranches, the triple-B tier, were bundled together into completely new instruments called Collaterized Debt Obligations, or CDO's, and amazingly these CDO's were given triple-A ratings by the rating agencies. Even though the rating agencies didn't understand the instruments, they took the banks' advice on how to rate them.

Michael Lewis describes the background of the people involved in all these trades, providing a fascinating narrative as well as an explanation of Wall Street banking. The book is filled with humor, though mostly dark humor. There is a sense of impending doom but also the thrill of being on the inside while the people who can see the collapse coming make their bets. They are betting not just against individual mortgages or bonds but against the system as a whole. The result is a story made of up the individual insiders' stories. With its lack of sentimentality a strength, this book presents an informative and compelling account of the recent financial collapse. A-

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Autumn of the Patriarch

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch is a poetic novel of the last days of a fading dictator's reign. The story is set in a strange yet familiar Latin American country, and is full of the fantastic elements that reader's of his work will recognize.

There is no real plot or conflict to the story; instead it is made up of several sections that reveal facts of the nameless patriarch's life. Each section is made of up a few long rambling sentences, wandering aimlessly in much the way the patriarch does through his compound. The first section tells about the death of the dictator's double. The patriarch vicariously watches his own funeral, seeing his people mourn his death.

Each section is told with a flood of images and facts, sometimes as memories. The effect is impressionistic. In one section the patriarch watches as his beloved mother dies. We learn that his mother was a poor wench and he had three different stories of his birth, with no known father. After the mother dies he goes to great lengths to have her declared a saint, finally expelling the clergy from the country when they do not comply. Among the nun marching away he finds his wife, whom he seduces while she is imprisoned. Her extravagant ways cause trouble, until she and their son are finally assassinated by a pack of wild dogs. Another assassin is brought in and given total control to find those behind the attack, and he describes a vast conspiracy. The assassin has his own parallel empire based on torture and terror inside the state; he is finally deposed by the people, but the patriarch escapes claiming ignorance.

The impression is of a tyrant who is trapped by his own power. The only TV and newspaper he sees provide the fake news his own people invent. The people in his cabinet he cannot trust as soon as he installs them. The girls he picks up off the street and seduces turn out to be whores procured by his military. The facade of his life is symbolized by the birds that his mother paints in order to sell as exotic fowl. While he has absolute power, he is in stasis. The country never improves or changes much. No matter the upheaval outside his walls, he wanders his compound, checking the cows, checking each door.

This is one of the more difficult books I've read. It is basically a long poem with several sections, each of which has images slammed together in a wandering sort of stream of consciousness. Sometimes this is difficult to follow, but when it works it creates a strong effect. This is less conventional that Garcia Marquez's other works I have read, which are generally straightforward in structure, if full of fantastic images and symbols. B

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