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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

I have been a fan of the works of David Sedaris for a while so I looked forward to getting the audiobook of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. However, I was disappointed. The stories are not up to his usual quality. To say that the tone is dark does not grasp the full quality. Some of the stories amount to little more than extended puns, a build up to a corny joke. Most of the characters, though they are animals, have no redeeming qualities--misanthropic might be the word.

The last story, "The Grieving Owl", about an owl who befriends a hippopotamus, has one of the best buildups and endings, despite being dark and dirty. It ends, "...this trio of newfound friends, so far-fetched we simply had to be true." It brings a small note of tenderness to an otherwise bitter story. The rest of the stories leave a bitter or sarcastic feeling. That could be forgiven if they were funny, but Sedaris goes for the cheap laugh, the potty humor.

This is definitely not up to Sedaris's other works. His most touching stories have the note of truth and human compassion. These stories are primarily scatalogical and cheap. It's too bad, because I thought they had the potential for more. C-

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Time Traveler's Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife is a fantasy novel by Audrey Niffenegger in which the main character has a genetic condition that forces him to randomly pop back and forth in time. Only his body travels, leaving Henry De Tamble at the mercy of the elements and other people. But the time traveling is just a device to provide conflict in the relationship between Heny and his wife Clare, and suggest a metaphor for the distance between them.

Henry first meets Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, yet she has known him her whole life. Older versions of Henry have traveled to visit her since she was a little girl, so she is accustomed to his condition. But she must get used to him leaving her a spontaneous times instead of arriving at predestined times. The novel is filled with amusing and suspenseful scenes when Henry travels at inoppurtune times. The story is great as fantasy or science fiction, throwing the main characters into strange and exciting situations.

But the story also works on another level. Henry's disappearances make him an imperfect boyfriend or husband. His previous relationship was a spectacular failure due to Henry's behavior, not only his time traveling but his general unreliability. With Henry jumping back in time, we see his literal and metaphorical failings juxtaposed. The time travel is another dimension of Henry's problems with women.

The title says the story is not about Henry but about Clare. Growing up, Henry is the ideal boyfriend to Clare. She can imagine a bright future with him. When she finally meets him in the present everything is fine at first, but eventually she becomes dismayed at the reality of his condition. She worries every time he disappears. At the same time, she knows that he will return, for he has visited her from the future. That is, until later in the story, when the visits get fewer and the disappearances become more harrowing. Clare knows that each time Henry leaves it could be for the last time. The jumps become more dangerous, like when Henry appears inside a metal cage inside the library where he works. The cage haunts Henry because he know he will not be able to get out of it.

The book works on all its levels. It is a touching romance, a science fiction thriller, and literary blend of the two. The story moves from fresh novelty, to troubled middle, to a troubled end. It becomes more more haunting as the end nears, Henry's jumps become more dire, and his health degrades. But we have glimpses of the Clare's future to see some hope. A-

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is set in a dystopian future where genetic engineers are constantly fighting to create foods resistant to diseases that have contaminated the food supply. The Thai refer to the Western peddlars of the latest gene-spliced disease-resistant products as the calorie men, a reference to what is the critical resource in civilization. It is a post-carbon world, where elevators work by groups of ballast men run up the stairs to provide counterweight. Large levees around Bangkok keep the rising sea at bay. The value of life is low.

Anderson Lake is the representative of a calorie company in Thailand. He has taken over a factory building kink springs, a sort of mechanical energy storage device. But that is just a cover: his long term goal is to gain access to the country's seed supply so they can duplicate it. Thailand is run by two competing factions: the Trade Ministry, which promotes imports and foriegn investment, and the Environment Ministry, which controls import to prevent the next disease from ruining all the local crops.

Lake is intrigued when he is at a friend's club and meets Emiko, the title character, who is a Japanese manufactured person. She is designed to have tiny pores for smooth skin, which means she is ill-suited to the hot Thai climate. She is also designed to be subservient and is the perfect servant or prostitute. Not only does she not have any rights, but if the Environment Ministry captures her they would seize her as illegal biological material and mulch her. Lake finds himself becoming attached to Emiko and promises to help her get to a safe haven for windup people.

Lake is helped by his Chinese assistant Hock Seng, but who is secretly plotting to steal the plans for the kink springs and sell them to the biggest gangster in town. Lake also has associates with whom he connives to bring about political instability to further their plans. One of the biggest wild cards is Jaidee, a fervent Environment Ministry officer known as the Tiger. When the Tiger oversteps his bounds and burns entire shipments, it starts a cascade of events that threatens to bring down the Environment Ministry and propel Lake and his associates to a grand success, if they can survive the violence and disease outbreak.

The story is captivating and the language is vivid. There are all sorts of fascinating things about the world that get let out in bits. Megodonts used to provide power, zeppelins used to travel. The characters are well drawn with definite pasts and conflicting goals. Each character has a different view of the strange world and affects the plot in his or her own way. This is a story of personal tragedy, sacrifice, intrigue, and biology, with a bit of violence and sex thrown in. I found it moderately entertaining. B

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