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.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Algebraist

In The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks creates an imaginative future where the galaxy's civilizations are connected via wormholes. The society of the galaxy is billions of years old, having had several iterations of government and cycles of growth and stagnation. As the story starts, a small section of the galaxy consisting of several hundred worlds has been cut off from the rest of civilization for hundreds of years, the Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect. The E-5 Disconnect has been taken over by a man intent on total domination and control of as much of civilization as he can.

The central character is Fassin Taak, member of a family of Seers in a system called Ulubis. The Seers spend time in gas giants interacting with the ancient species called Dwellers, large round beings who are as engimatic and long-lived as they are large and powerful. The Dwellers can change their time perception, slowing down to experience years as days. Taak has spent decades studying with the Dwellers in the gas giant Nasqueron, slowing to their time scale. One day he is summoned to a giant meeting with the military and political leaders of the system and the galactic government, the Mercatoria. Ulubis has been totally disconnect from the rest of the galaxy since its wormhole was destroyed over a century earlier. But they have received a message, in the form of a banned AI, warning them of imminent danger from the E-5 Disconnect. Moreover, the threat is due to knowledge that Taak gained in one of his visits with the Dwellers.

Taak had received a volume of knowledge from a Dweller friend, and when other academics finally decoded, translated, and understood it, it was discovered to contain dangerous knowledge. It referred to an ancient and secret system of wormholes controlled by the Dwellers, and a secret algebra to convert the list to its current coordinates.

This top secret information turns Taak's life upside down. Preliminary attacks are made on the Ulubis systems, including Taak's home. He is required to revisit his Dweller friends but barely survives entering the atmosphere. He discovers that the friend who gave him the secret volume is dead, or perhaps not. Taak finds himself at a Dweller regatta near a formal war, when all hell breaks loose after the military's spy systems discover him speaking of the secret volume and attempt to intervene. The Dwellers send a large ship called a planet protector, previously only a rumor, to destory the offending ships.

Taak's journey sends him to a lost library, riding on a Dweller spaceship, encountering secret AI's, and visiting faraway worlds. He interacts with ancient Dwellers, commando units, and strange aliens. The suspense builds as the Disconnect forces close in on the Ulubis system with thousands of war ships at near light speed. The counterattack is coming but months behind. Taak is conflicted because he has no love for the Mercatoria and its AI-hating philosphy, but the Disconnect and their allies are a serious threat to his home. The Dwellers and the AI's are enigmatic and entertaining, and the plot is full of surprises. A-

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Holidays on Ice

Holidays on Ice is a short collection of humor by David Sedaris, focusing on funny things about the holidays. The first piece is "The Santa Land Diaries", an account of his season working as a department store elf. The antics of his fellow elves are only exceeded by the Santas and the parents. This was a pretty funny essay that turns the holidays upside down.

The rest of the stories are mixed. The piece "Seasons Greetings to our Family and Friends" is dark and full of spite but not much real humor. On the other hand, "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" is a funny bit about the year his sister brought home a prostitute friend during the holiday season. The piece "Six to Eight Black Men" is a classic commentary on cultural differences about the holidays.

Overall I'd say this is pretty standard Sedaris humor, if not his best. It is good for a laugh during the holidays, or even in the middle of summer. B

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Anglo-Saxon World

Anglo-Saxon World is a Modern Scholar lecture course by Professor Drout. He discusses the history of early England, the many events of the tumultuous centuries after the fall of Rome, and the literature produced during this time. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Anglo-Saxons alongside the literature.

The history basically starts with the invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes of the British Isles after the Romans leave the islands. The invaders bring a rich language and culture that spreads throughout England. Christianity already has a presence on the isles in the Celtic areas, but the pope sends missionaries in the 7th Century and England becomes converted within a century. There comes to be a strong monastic tradition in the country that promotes literacy in Latin as well as Anglo-Saxon. In the late 800's King Alfred the Great promoted Anglo-Saxon literacy and translated many works from Latin himself.

Professor Drout gives a great explanation of the politcal and military history involved in the Danish invasion and the events that led up to the Norman invasion. With rule by the French House of Normandy, the language and culture changed, though Anglo-Saxon continued to be spoken for centuries after. The language evolved to become Middle English, yet old contracts were still written in the older language.

The professor describes the epic Beowulf, pointing out bits of historical relevance. In fact the poem becomes a bit of a touchstone and he refers to it in almost every lecture. The course is an informative read, and enjoyable for anyone interested in English language and history. A-

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Eternal Chalice

Eternal Chalice: The Grail in Literature and Legend is a Modern Scholar course on the Holy Grail. Given my history as an English student, including a course on Arthurian literature, I was interested to learn more about the Grail. Professor Potkay discusses the treatments of the Grail from the Middle Ages through the Twentieth Century.

Professor Potkay starts with Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, written around 1180. The story is about the young knight who learns about knighthood and chivalry and Christianity. The grail makes a mysterious entrance with a spear, though it is not described in detail. The central secret of the grail that Perceval learns is the central message of Christianity (at least as the author sees it): love of God and love of one's fellow man. It seems an obvious message, but then the "secret" means more when the quester (or the reader) has spent time and energy questing for it.

Throughout the centuries, the grail acquires more detail, both in its physical appearance and its larger meaning. It becomes more involved in the rest of Arthurian legends and takes up a central purpose for the knights. The quest for the grail comes at the end of the stories and indicates the start of the fall of Arthur's Round Table, as they knights are all away on a quest that they cannot complete.

I was glad to learn about Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, an early Twentieth Century expanation of the grail in different sources. While the book has fallen out of favor and its scholarship discredited, it still provides some insights escpecially to Eliot's "The Waste Land". The professor describes the poem and its context in the grail legend. After discussing modern adaptations including Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, the course finishes with a description of Umberto Eco's Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco's novel is itself a commetary on grail literature and all the theories surrounding it. It is a good discussion to close the course. The course is a great overview of the grail and its place in literature through the centuries, including how its meaning is adapted for different ages. A-

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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Wizard's First Rule

Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule is the first book of a high fantasy epic. The lands of D'Hara and the Midlands are ruled by Darken Rahl, a ruthless wizard bent on controlling the entire population. Rahl's goal is to open one of the three magic boxes that will give him ultimate power, but if he chooses wrong, either he will die or all humanity will die.

Richard Cypher is a woods guide in Westland, a land separated from Midlands by a magic veil. Richard knows nothing about Rahl but learns quickly when he helps a beautiful young woman named Kahlan escape from four assassins. For the first half of the story Richard is ignorant of Kahlan's powers and why Rahl would want to have her killed. Kahlan is the last surviving woman in a line of Confessors, who have the power to bring a person under their complete control. As such, she is a big threat to Rahl.

The story unfolds as Richard and Kahlan search for the third hidden magic book, to keep it from Rahl before the first day of winter. All the fantasy tropes are there. There's Zedd, an old man and friend of Richard who turns out to be a wizard with much knowledge of Rahl. There's the constant traveling from one goal to another as they get clues to the box's location. There's the helpers give the clues. There's a magic sword that is both boon and bane to the person who wields it. Richard can channel the sword using his anger, but he must be careful not to let it overwhelm him. The story is done well enough to keep the reader interested for the first two thirds of the book.

It is the last third that gets exciting. Richard and Kahlan's relationship grows even as they keep secrets from each other. They are caught in a trap between love and duty. But when Richard is captured by a mysterious woman the story takes a big twist. Richard must face new levels of physical pain with only the memory of Kahlan to sustain him. He is broken down and rebuilt as a slave, willing to do Rahl's bidding. The depths that Richard experiences and how he survives is the real center of the story.

The first several hundred pages are readable but nothing extraordinary for a fantasy novel. Outside of the complex relationship between Richard and Kahlan, it is full of moderately inventive fantasy plot. But the story gets fascinating with Richard's capture and transformation. There is a truly interesting plot development when he meets Kahlan and Zedd for the first time after his capture. The conflict between Rahl and the protectors of the world is crystallized perfectly in the last chapters. It is a fulfilling story. A-

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