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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Alchemist

The Alchemist is a novella by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The story is a parable about a shepherd boy in Spain who encounters an old man claiming to be a king. The old man gives him two magic stones and encourages him to pursue his dream: to find great treasure near the pyramids in Egypt. The important message the boy receives is, "when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." This feel-good sentimentality is the main tone of the story. It was just too sweet and simplistic to me.

The boy sells his sheep and crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Africa, where a thief steals all his money. He manages to find work with a crystal salesman and earns even more money within a year. Now he is faced with a decision: whether to keep pursuing his dream or be satisfied with what he has. He continues, but he is further challenged when he reaches an oasis and meets a young woman. He also meets the alchemist, a mysterious source of wisdom. The alchemist specifically seeks out the boy instead of the young man seeking him, presumably because he knows who really needs his advice.

The resolution of the story is that he finds his treasure in his homeland, in the very place where he had the dream about his treasure. The moral seems to be that he had his treasure with him all along, throughout all his travels. The story is pretty mystical, culminating in the alchemist encouraging the boy to converse with the wind and the sun. The overall tone is inspirational, but I found it simplistic. The boy is encouraged to pursue his dreams, but perhaps he would have been happy staying a shepherd, or a crystal salesman. Of course, he never would have known if he could have reached his dream, but he also might wonder if he would have been happy staying a crystal salesman. This ignores some of the true wisdom of age, that perhaps not all fantasies should be pursued. Sometimes the wonders one finds along the way are the true gifts. The boy may have had to go through many travels to discover his happiness at home, but if he was happy already, then what was the point? C

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Dancing with Bears

Dancing with Bears is a crazy fun novel by Michael Swanwick featuring his roguish characters Darger and Surplus. Darger is an English gentleman, and Surplus is an American dog genetically modified to talk and behave like a human. Together they hatch improbable schemes that have a habit of going very awry. In this story, the two are traveling with the Byzantine ambassador to Muscovy in a caravan with a mysterious cargo. The cargo is soon revealed to be seven beautiful women genetically designed to be the perfect mates for the Duke of Muscovy. When the ambassador dies, Surplus connives to assume his position.

The two lead the caravan to Muscovy where they get involved in a tangled web of plots. One of the things I enjoy about Swanwick's stories is that each character has a life of his own. They are vivid people with their own agendas and their own methods. Chortenko is the head of the secret police who has armies of informants and nefarious methods. One of his agents is Anya Pepsicolova, a young woman whom he captured and broke to become his protege, but who has her own plans. There are the underlords, mysterious machines who rule the Moscow underworld and have a plot to inflict destruction on the entire world, starting with Muscovy. Then there is the Duke himself, a mysterious character who sleeps and sees all of the realm in his dreams.

The plot is complex and has many twists and turns. The rogues find themselves involved in a revolutionary plot that consumers the entire city. There is a good deal of sex to go around thanks to a special drug that revolutionary agents have brought in. The Pearls, as the seven women gifts are known, have their own immense talents. Indeed, almost nobody is as they seem. There are surprises and humor at every turn. The two rogues are inventive and resourceful, never letting a setback keep them down for long. They are both cynics, indeed they embody the ideal of cynicism. No matter the situation, they always have a wry remark and a clever way to regain the advantage. This is one of the funniest and most entertaining books I've read in a long time. A

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Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a multi-layered novel mixing philosophy and a good story. At the core is the story of a man and a woman as they fall in love, get married, and go through life's troubles. Kundera moves easily from the specific to the general, expanding the characters' situations to the human condition.

The central story is about Tomas, a doctor in Prague, and Tereza, the young woman who captures his heart. Tomas is divorced and enjoys the company of many women. He does not intend his fling with her to become serious, but falls in love with her when she becomes sick and must stay in his bed for days. Even though Tomas marries Tereza, he keeps seeing his mistresses, especially a local artist named Sabina. This causes Tereza distress, yet he cannot stop seeing them.

They face real trouble when the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia. Tomas and Tereza flee to Zurich, but Tereza soon realizes she is too unhappy so she move back to Prague and takes their dog Karenin with her. Tomas discovers that he too is unhappy without her, so he sacrifices his nice job and his freedom to return to Prague to be with her. This is the central decision in the novel. Tomas chooses Tereza over his career, his freedom, his whole life. In Zurich he would have had freedom and a great job in medicine. In Prague he is subject to the whims of the Communist regime, and he is not free to be a doctor unless he keeps quiet about the government.

But he writes a scathing commentary against the Czech citizens who collaborate with the occupiers. He compares them to Oedipus, who put out his eyes after he realized the terrible crimes he had committed. He believes that those who collaborate with the Communist regime will someday see that they have made terrible crimes and should put out their eyes. This article comes to haunt him when he refuses to renounce it and his supervisor is forced to fire him, and he must become a window washer. Yet even as his station falls, his fortunes with women rise. His new occupation allows him to meet women for sex.

Tomas has stood up for his beliefs and suffered, but is soon faced with another decision. His estranged son visits him to request his signature on a petition to free political prisoners. Tomas is inclined to sign it, but he realizes that it is a pointless move that will only harm him. Here the author crystallizes the dilemma of living in a repressive country. Everyone understands that protesting against the state is pointless, even though it is the only option they have to fight back. The petition that Tomas refuses to sign is doubly pointless, since it is protesting the imprisonment of other protesters. If the government were legitimate and just, there would be no need to protest in the first place.

Tereza also experiments with having an affair, but becomes distressed and paranoid that her lover was only an agent of the secret police. Eventually Tomas and Tereza and Karenin move to the country and live a simple life. They realize that their love for each other is so strong that they are happy despite their loss of freedom and comfort.

Kundera creates a strong philosophical novel out of the story of the two lovers. He draws on psychology as he shows Tereza's past with her mother, Tomas's need to be with other women, and Sabina's desire to replicate her love for Tomas with another man. Politics are a force throughout the novel as the characters find themselves at the mercy of powerful forces. Kundera relates the characters' situation to the needs and desires in all of us. The experiences are deeper, more personal and yet more universal. A

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