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.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I've had a copy of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on my shelf for years waiting for me to read it. With the release of the movie version I decided that I should read the book before going to see the movie. The story was published in 1974 and is a classic Cold War spy novel. But it is not like a 007 novel (I haven't read any Ian Fleming but I'm very familiar with the movies). There are no shootouts or daring escapes, no high stakes card games. The protagonist is not a debonair and sexy secret agent, but a pudgy and middle aged career agent named George Smiley. Smiley has spent time running operations in foreign countries, but was mostly a mid-level manager, and has spent his most recent time semi-retired. Smiley has also had recent marital trouble, which has affected his ability to do his job.

Smiley is called back to help solve a problem at the Circus (the name used for the British intelligence service). It has become clear that there is a serious leak, from a high-level mole they refer to as Gerald. Smiley and a few other old timers are the only ones trusted to figure out who the mole is. Smiley and his associates sneak documents out of the headquarters and try to piece together the movements of the various officials, and figure out what went wrong with failed operations.

One of those failed operations was Operation Witchcraft. It involved the search to acquire a Czech general as an informant. During Operation Witchcraft, career agent Jim Prideaux was shot and captured. Prideaux was questioned and released, but has spent his time since in retirement, teaching at a boys school. Smiley must investigate his own organization and people that he has worked with and trusted for a long time. There's also

Aside from one tense scene at the end when Smiley and his friends are waiting at a safe house for the arrival of the mole, there is little action in the book. Much of the story is told in flashback, as agents and operatives relate to Smiley their pieces of the puzzle. The story has a good feel for Cold War attitudes between East and West and the workings of the foreign intelligence service. But it also has the mood of an older man who is facing the twilight of his career. Smiley is often reflective and we learn about his past through his own flashbacks. The writing is pretty good if a bit dry. While there's little action there is a building sense of suspense as Smiley learns more and more about what's going on at the Circus. The suspense is dark and foreboding, not sharp and thrilling. I think it would be tricky to make into a good movie, but I am eager to see the result. B+

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

2011 in Review

42 books. That's how many I read in 2011, including audiobooks and lecture series. A pretty good year. I was reading during my lunch break for a while during the year but my schedule changed so I usually went swimming instead. I found myself reading less as the year went on and I got occupied doing different things.

My favorite books of the year: The Skinner; C; Freedom; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; and Atonement. My favorite book I read this year was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Honorable mention goes to Christopher Hitchens' Arguably.

I finished two series this year, the His Dark Materials series and the Aubrey/Maturin series. I also started the Sword of Truth series. For 2012, one of my goals is to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. I must admit I have a love/hate relationship with book series. The second book alone of the Sword of Truth was nearly a thousand pages long.

Another goal is to finally read 2666 by Roberto BolaƱo, another long book. Also, I have a shelf full of books I've accumulated that I'd like to read, and a list on the library web site that's close to fifty books.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away on December 15, 2011, leaving behind a large set of writings. He published books such as God is Not Great and Why Orwell Matters. He wrote for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Slate. His journalism took him to dozens of countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus, and Lebanon. In 2008 he went so far as to allow himself to be waterboarded so he could write an article about it in Vanity Fair, titled "Believe Me, It's Torture." He raises a spirited critique of the practice, which has been prosecuted by the U.S. when done against our citizens.

I've always known Hitchens as an outspoken atheist. But I think atheism was just one one facet of his philosophy. He was mainly against totalitarianism in any form. In his view, religion was one more attack on a human's mind, which yearns to be free. He especially hated Islam and saw it as a form of fascism. I think he was guilty of holding Islamic extremists as typical examples of the faith, for there are many peaceful Muslims, but he was largely correct about the fanatics that want to establish an Islamic empire. In "Stand Up for Denmark!", he writes passionately in favor of freedom of speech, specifically speech to criticize a religion, and against those who would use violence to silence any opposition. The essay commences with a striking analogy:

Put the case that we knew of a highly paranoid religious cult organization witha secretive leader. Now put the case that this cult, if criticized in the press, would take immediate revenge by kidnapping a child. Put the case that, if the secretive leader were also to be lampooned, two further children would be killed at random. Would the press be guilty of "self-censorhip" if it declined to publish anything that would inflame the said cult? Well, yes it would be guilty, but very few people would insist on the full exertion of the First Amendment right. However, the consequences for the cult and its leader would be severe as well. All civilized people would regard it as hateful and dangerous, and steps would be taken to circumscribe its influence, and to ensure that no precedent was set.

The incredible thing about the ongoing Kristallnacht against Denmark (and in some places, against the embassies and citizens of any Scandinavian or even European Union nation) is that it has resulted in, not opprobrium for the religion that perpetrates and excuses it, but increased respectability! ...And nobody in authority can be found to state the obvious and the necessary: That we stand with the Danes against this defamation and blackmail and sabotage. Instead, all compassion and concern is apparently to be expended upon those who lit the powder trail, and who yell and scream for joy as the embassies of democracies are put to the torch in the capital cities of miserable, fly-blown dictatorships. Let's be sure we haven't hurt the vandals' feelings.

In an essay in Slate he argues for the French ban on veils, insisting the the law is actually trying to lift a ban on seeing the face of fellow citizens. He actually managed to change my mind, concluding:

My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.

In addition to being well-traveled, Hitchens was well-read. He was friends with writers such as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. He always has a literary or historical reference to introduce an essay or book review. He was a big fan of George Owell. In the piece "On Animal Farm" he analyzes the book and compares the characters and plot to the actual events of the Russian Revolution. He has essays on Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He reviews a book on John Brown with a keen insight into the politics of slavery in the mid-Nineteenth century. In "America the Banana Republic", he critizes the philosphy that has allowed the privatization of gains and the socialization of losses.

Hitchens had a anti-imperialist point of view as an Englishman who saw the fallout of the English empire fading over the course of the Twentieth century. He discusses the situation in Palestine as the end result of decisions made decades ago by English aristocrats. In "The Perils of Partition", he looks at the division of Pakistan from India and the religious bloodshed that has resulted. He compares that situation with the creation of Iraq with different ethnicities like the Kurds, and the partitioning of Ireland into Catholic and Protestant sections.

There are also lighter essays, such as "So Many Men's Rooms, So Little Time", about Senator Larry Craig. One essay is about blowjobs, titled "As American as Apple Pie". I was please to discover that he had a similar take as I did on the works of Stieg Larsson and J. K. Rowling, that they are overrated.

There is a wide range of essays in the book, from literary critiques to historical commentaries to short and sharp pieces on modern issues. I confess I skipped some of the reviews of more obscure authors, but the ones I read were good, and I learned about several new authors. I sometimes consider myself well-read, but certainly not compared to a giant like Hitchens. His writing is the most eloquent combination of historical depth, elegant craftsmanship, and fierce rhetoric I have ever read. A

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Best American Comics 2011

The Best American Comics 2011 is a compendium of comics from the previous year, edited by Alison Bechdel. There's a variety of content and genres here, from philosophical to fantasy to memoir to meta. Some pieces are complete sections and some are as short as a page. The really short ones are hard to digest, and I couldn't get a good sense from just one or two pages.

The best piece is "Nov. 3, 1956" by Joe Sacco. This black and white comic starkly depicts the murders of dozens of Palestinian men by Israeli soldiers on that date. But it also contrasts the tales of the survivors, showing that while their stories make a coherent whole, one contradicts the others. It is a commentary on memory and history.

I really appreciated "Pet Cat" by Joey Alison Sayers, a comic about a comic, and the comic's fate as it goes through different writers. Another gem is "Flower Mecha" by Angie Wang, a colorful and imaginary creation combining organic and mechanical art.

Jeff Smith's "The Mad Scientist", an excerpt from his comic RASL, is a fun, gritty, and informative selection. It involves Tesla and time travel, along with the protagonists wild adventures. This is one comic that I will want to see more of.

The selection of comics is a bit uneven, though this is not surprising with such a wide variety of subject matter and styles to choose from. There are several good ones so overall it is enjoyable. B

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