You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The City & The City

China Mieville's The City & The City is a novel about two cities that occupy the same space. Beszel and Ul Qoma have evolved into an uneasy coexistence. Their customs and language are different. They have a history of conflict. Their architecture and economy are recognizably different. Yet the citizens of each city must not have any direct contact with those of the other. In order to protect the cities' separate identity, any failure to respect the boundaries is punishable by Breach, a mysterious group with total powers over boundary breaches. Citizens must make themselves "unsee" people in the other city, even those walking down a neighboring street. It is a trick that natives learn as they grow up.

Inspector Borlu is a detective on the Beszel police force who is called to investigate the murder of a young woman. He gets a mysterious call from someone he suspects to be from Ul Qoma, leading him to discover that the young woman was a student there. He goes to the joint council to attempt to invoke Breach, but a video surfaces of the van carrying the woman across the only legal checkpoint between the city, so there was no violation.

Eventually Borlu must travel to Ul Qoma to work with a detective named Dhatt on the Ul Qoman police force. This transition means he must reverse his lifelong habit of seeing his own city and unseeing the other. Now the familiar is strange and the strange familiar.

Borlu and Dhatt interview a professor Bowden who was made famous for a book claiming there was a third city between the two, but has long ago disavowed those claims. It appears that the murdered student has become a true believer and has gotten into trouble with fringe groups who want to unify the cities. The detectives also investigate other radical groups who are ultra-nationalist in favor of each city. The story gets deeper as Borlu examines the implications of Bowden's theories, as well as the role of Breach.

The concept plays out beautifully with the plot. Borlu moves from one city to the other and must grapple with his own discomfort, the concepts of two cities and Breach, and the details of the murder case. It all gets mixed up as he gets closer to Breach himself. The cities are sort of mirrors of each other, and a sort of split brain. Each side's identity is related to the other, though most won't admit it. And then there's Breach, the unknown factor that rules so much yet is still a controlling force in each city. In the cities where discussion of a single city or walking across the street to a foreign building is a violation, the idea of a third city is even more dangerous. I enjoyed how the cities worked and played with each other, how they fed on each other even as they were ignored. It is an illuminating look at all split cities around the world. A-

Labels: ,

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a novel by Jennifer Egan written in a format of several linked stories. The stories span several decades from the early 1980's to the 2020's and include many different characters in a sort of chain. The overarching theme is that of progression, transition, or the slow metamorphosis of life.

The first story is about Sasha, a kleptomaniac who works for a music producer Bennie Salazar. Then we see Bennie as a younger man entering the music business. We see Bennie's mentor Lou womanizing with a younger crowd.

Many of the chapters show a relationship between the older and younger generation. There's Lou and his younger retinue, Bennie and his son. Dolly is a PR agent who served time for terrible accident at a party at her house, so can only get a publicity job for a murderous third world dictator. She takes her daughter to the general's country along with a young actress who has been in some trouble. Unfortunately the actress proves to be a bit too unpredictable and gets them all into trouble. There is a definite contrast between the wildness of the young actress and the older woman who is just trying to provide for her daughter, while at the same time keeping the truth from her.

Then there is the young Sasha who disappears and spends months in Milan, and her uncle who is sent to look for her. Both are on a sort of sabbatical, a vacation from life. The uncle spends his time looking at art and finds Sasha only by accident. She is living in a small room and picking pockets for a living. Neither can tell the other what they are doing in Milan. A section towards the end is created by Sasha's daughter, explicating their family by a Powerpoint presentation. This uses form to enhance the theme, showing how far behind the parents are from the children.

I found the novel interesting, but I am not sure that all the pieces add up well. Part of the problem may be that I listened to the audiobook, and some parts did not translate well. For example, the Powerpoint section was morphed into an audio presentation, which still worked but lacked the effects of the visual graphs. Some audiobooks just translate better than others. I would definitely recommend reading a text version instead.

Part of my problem was that we never got enough about any characters to know them well enough. The exceptions are Bennie and Sasha, who we see from many others. Also the lack of a central plot is a bit of a stumbling block, though usually I am open to different narrative styles. Upon reflection, it does have a lot to say about aging and the difference between youth and maturity. B

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was on a lot of 2010 best books lists. It is a complex novel about a simple story. The story at the core is a love triangle. The center of the triangle is Patty, a woman who is strongly attracted to the musician and womanizer Richard Katz. Richard doesn't feel much for Patty but he has strong admiration and affection for his roommate Walter Berglund. Walter has noble ideals and sees in Patty something that she doesn't recognize in herself. In many ways, Walter is in love with an ideal of Patty, or perhaps he sees who she could be. His desire for her is strong enough to pull her to him, but only after Richard rejects her (knowing of Walter's feelings).

Walter convinces Patty to marry him, and the three of them ease into a relationship. Richard spends most of his time in New York or New Jersey while the Berglunds create a family in Minnesota. Walter is hurt by Richard's long absences, but Patty understands. Walter builds a successful career and manages to improve his life over that of his parents.

One of the themes in the book is the mistakes that parents make and how we try to avoid those mistakes while making completely new ones. Patty felt ostracized by her family, to the point where she hardly had anything to do with them after marrying Walter. So she smothers her children with love and attention, especially their son Joey. But Patty feels betrayed when Joey gets involved with their teenage neighbor, because she resents the girl's parents. Joey rebels against his parents and becomes a Republican.

Walter was the victim of his abusive alcoholic father and his mother would would not stand up for herself or for him. This is crystallized in the lake house that his mother inherits and his father wants to sell in order to pay off debts. When Walter can't convince his parents to fix it up, he decides to move there himself for the summer and fix it up. However, he is betrayed when his useless older brother shows up with the news that their parents are letting him "rent" the house. Walter has to give him the house and the peace that he enjoyed there.

The house remains central to Walter's life as he fixes it up when the brother leaves. The pivotal section is when Richard spends a summer there fixing it up and writing songs. When Walter heads home and leaves Patty there with Richard, they are faced with their old emotions again.

The parents' relationship is mirrored by Joey, who treats his girlfriend Connie like crap even though she is completely devoted to him. Like Walter, Connie is completely devoted to the love of her life; like Patty, she is depressed. Joey is worse to Connie that Patty is to her husband; he sleeps with several women at college while stringing her along.

The novel dramatizes the characters in depth, even going back to Patty and Walter's grandparents to illustrate the personalities that affected them through the generations. The plot thickens with Walter's and Joey's jobs, with both of them facing moral crises at the same time. The tension builds when Richard visits to discuss working with Walter, Walter's assistant making her feelings clear, and Joey calling his father for ethical advice. Somehow it all comes together for Walter, and in a few days his life has changed dramatically. The reader can really sense Walter's love and pain. But at the same time we can feel Patty's longing for her true love, something more than the admiration she feels for Walter. Somehow all together, the three of them combine with the elements of a complete relationship. A-

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Blue at the Mizzen

Blue at the Mizzen is the twentieth book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, and the last he completed. The story starts after Waterloo, and the Surprise is off the coast of Africa. Captain Aubrey must resupply, repair, and crew his ship. Though he is still part of the Royal Navy, hoping for a promotion to admiral, he is assigned detached duty taking the Surprise to South America to promote Chile's independence from Spain.

Dr. Maturin has a central role to the story. His advice as a spy and a political advisor help Aubrey navigate the diplomatic waters. On their way down the coast of Africa, Dr. Maturin makes a marriage proposal to a beautiful widow who shares his interest in nature. However, she turns down his offer. Maturin is disappointed but not dejected.

The Surprise faces difficulty navigating Cape Horn but they survive without serious damage. In Chile, they discover that war is imminent between Chile and Peru, and the Chilean navy is woefully unprepared. But Jack leads a daring raid against the Peruvian port and captures the largest Peruvian ship. Before long, Jack gets a message that he is to sail to the coast of South Africa to take command of a squadron.

The plot is slow in developing. A lot of the story is taken up with the lives of the people on the ship, including a young man who is the illegitimate son of a prince who comes aboard as a midshipman. Unfortunately this and Dr. Maturin's intrigues and naturalism aren't quite enough to keep the story interesting. It doesn't get exciting until the sail around Cape Horn, and then the battle with the Peruvians. This book is one of the weaker of the series. B-

Labels: , , ,