Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell-Two weeks ago, in a bit of a mini review, I said, "Right now, I am about half-way through, and I am dreading finding out what happens because this is one of those books that lets you know right up front that Things Did Not Go Well, and already I love the people involved and I so want things to go well for them, but I know that they don't, and it is heartbreaking." Well, kids, it remains heartbreaking, right through to the very end.

First, let me say, I loved this book. This is one of those books that makes other books pale in comparison, only I didn't realize it at the time (more on this when I post my review of The Gargoyle). I added this title to my TBR list four years (four years!) ago, and I am so glad that I finally decided to read it.

You get a sense of foreboding right from the start. The Prologue reads, in part:

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. [That's beautiful. What a noble mission!]

They meant no harm. [Oh dear.]

Like I said, you know up front that Things Did Not Go Well. In 2021, eight people embark on a mission to Rakhat, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, to investigate the source of the musical broadcasts that have been discovered emanating from that system. The mission is funded by the Jesuit Society and consists of four Jesuits and four civilians.

In 2059, Father Emilio Sandoz, the only surviving member of the party, is released from hospital, still physically and mentally ravaged from his mission, and moved to a Jesuit residence. Here he will be asked to explain what happened during the mission, to tell what happened to the other members of the party, and to explain the reports from the rescue party that paint him as a whore and a murderer.

The story bounces back between the "present day" in 2059/2060, and the time period between 2016 and...2042(?), from the time that the extraterrestrial music is discovered to the time Emilio Sandoz is rescued and taken off of Rakhat.

I don't even know what else to say about this book. I loved it so much. I don't want to say anything to make you not read it, and I want to say everything I can to make you read it, and then I don't want anybody to read it and not love it.

This is sci-fi, but what I would consider sci-fi lite. It's a story about cultural exploration, it just happens to be in another solar system. Yes, there is space travel and crazy, other-worldly creatures, and they have weird names, but it's not over the top, and I never felt overwhelmed by the foreign-ness of it all.

Speaking of foreign-ness, Emilio Sandoz grew up in the slums of Puerto Rico, and is not exactly what you might consider a traditional candidate for the priesthood. He grew up fighting and selling drugs and ended up in parochial school as a way to avoid jail. He surprised himself by liking certain aspects of his religious life and, although faith and prayer were never his strong suits, he entered the novitiate at age seventeen. He acknowledged his weaknesses and continued to pray, taking comfort in the words of his mentor, D.W. Yarbrough, who told him, 'Son, sometimes it's enough just to act less like a shithead.' And by that kindly if inelegant standard, Emilio Sandoz could believe himself to be a man of God.

Emilio is an extremely skilled linguist, and this comes in quite handy when the Jesuits are looking for someone to make contact with our new celestial neighbors. Throughout his life as a priest, Emilio remains agnostic, and as the mission begins to take shape he finally starts to think that perhaps there is something to this God thing. At one point, he sits down to talk to his good friend and shipmate, Anne, about what is going on in his head. There were a million things that had to go just right for everyone to come together as a part of this mission, and beyond all reasonable hope, they did.

So. Things kept happening, just like God was really there, making it all happen. And I heard myself saying Deus vult, [God wills it] like Marc, but it still seemed like some kind of huge joke. And then one night, I just let myself consider the possibility that this is what it seems to be. That something extraordinary is happening. That God has something in mind for me. Besides sewer lines, I mean...And a lot of the time, even now, I think I must be a lunatic and this whole thing is crazy. But sometimes--Anne, there are times when I can let myself believe, and when I do," he said, voice dropping to a whisper and his hands, resting on his knees, opening, as though to reach for something, "it's amazing. Inside me, everything makes sense, everything I've done, everything that ever happened to me--it was all leading up to this, to where we are right now. But, Anne, it's frightening and I don't know why..."

She waited to see if he had more but when he fell silent, she decided to take a shot in the dark. "You know what's the most terrifying thing about admitting that you're in love?" she asked him. "You are just naked. You put yourself in harm's way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you."

He looked at her, astounded. "Yes. Exactly. That's how it feels, when I let myself believe. Like I am falling in love and like I am naked before God. And it is terrifying, as you say. But it has started to feel like I am being rude and ungrateful, do you understand? To keep on doubting. That God loves me. Personally." He snorted, half in disbelief and half in astonishment, and put his hands over his mouth for a moment and then pulled them away. "Does that sound arrogant? Or just crazy? To think that God loves me."

As the mission unfolds, Emilio begins to see more and more of the proof he has been searching for for so long. He finally believes, he knows that God is out there and that he has a plan for everybody and that his life's work has led him to this place in his life where he can finally fulfill God's plan. This is what he was put on Earth, given life, to do. He has finally, completely, accepted God and God's love. And then things go terribly, terribly wrong. When all the terrible details of the mission have finally been revealed in Emilio's 2060 debriefing, Father John Candotti utters a horrified, "My God," and Emilio responds:

Do you think so, John? Was it your God?" he asked with terrifying gentleness. "You see, that is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn't it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances," he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, "is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious then at least I have the solace of hating God."

Emilio's journey from doubt to belief to shattered faith is both heart-warming and harrowing, and despite all the doom and gloom I did actually feel like this book ended on a hopeful note. A tiny, quiet, whimpering note, but a hopeful one no less. I did have one issue with this book, but I feel like it's a bit of a spoiler to talk about it, not like it will make the book not worth reading or anything, but you know. So, don't read between the stars if you don't want to know what happened.

Okay, so the thing, THE event that finally totally shattered Emilio's faith. I understand why it had that effect on him, but the fact of the matter is, he's not the only person who's ever been raped. Granted, he's probably the only person to ever experience it in that manner, but people, good, God-fearing people, are raped left and right on Earth every day. Why did it take it happening to Emilio to make him question God so? He's a compassionate man, and, growing up and then working in the area that he did, I'm sure he was no stranger to tales of rape. Why would a God that allows that to happen to His people on Earth be any less deplorable to Emilio than one who allows it to happen to Emilio? Did anyone else have an issue with this? If so, were you able to come to any good resolution?

Okay, well, I'd love to hear from anyone else who has read this. I'd especially like to hear how it affected people of different beliefs. It's probably no secret to anyone who is familiar with my blog that I'm pretty definitely agnostic. I think it's just as big a leap of faith to claim with 100% certainty that there is no God as it is to declare with 100% certainty that there is a God, and, quite frankly, I just don't know. This book did not help clear things up one little bit, but it did make me feel, deeply, and that's why I loved it.

Other reviews:

Chris at Rude Cactus (It's only a one-liner, but it still gets the point across. Yeah, I know, I could take a lesson.)
Ann and Michael at Books on the Nightstand talk about The Sparrow in their podcast. Review starts around 4:57.

Have you reviewed The Sparrow? Let me know and I'll add a link to your review.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn-Ella lives on the island nation of Nollop which was named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the sentence, The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Nollop did something that nobody else has been able to accomplish-he wrote a sentence containing all 26 letters of the alphabet, and the entire sentence was only 35-letters long. Due to his unmatched genius, Nollop is worshiped as a literary genius, a guiding soul for this community who so admires the liberal arts.

A statue memorializing Nollop and his famous sentence was erected years ago in the town square. When the letter Z falls off of the statue, the High Island Council decides that this is a sign from the late Nollop; he, in his infinite wisdom, is telling the people of Nollop to change their ways, and since Nollop was the most intelligent man to ever exist, his word is not to be questioned. Neither, as it turns out, is the High Council's interpretation of Nollop's posthumous message. Any alternate interpretations will be considered heresy and will be cause for punishment. Mmm'kay?

So: Z is no longer an acceptable or necessary letter and is banned from all forms of communication. No one is to speak it, write it, or own anything that contains it. Ella, along with many of the other townsfolk, is not initially worried by this-it's just the letter Z, easy enough to do without-but her country cousin Tassie is able to see the more ominous far-reaching effects of such an order. Text books will likely have to be disposed of as will almost all library books-what are the odds that an entire book will be Z-free? Town records, family histories, all of these will be contraband if they contain the forbidden letter Z, and the punishments for such lawlessness are not slight...unless you consider death or permanent exile slight punishment.

As more and more letters fall from the statue, and the wide-reaching effects of the High Island Council's continual ban on letters continue to make life more and more difficult, we see a society crumble. Sounds a bit heavy, doesn't it? It's really not-it's so silly that you can't ever get too bogged down by the story itself; and although this wasn't my favorite book, I did have some fun with it. I think the author did a great job following the rules of the High Council. Consider the note that Ella sends regarding the unusual death of one of Nollop's citizens, written toward the end of the book, after the ban on B,C,D,F,J,K,Q,U,V,X,Y,and Z:

Please asept mie hartphelt simpathee at this time. [___] passt awae last night phrom let poisoning. She paintet her whole selph phrom het to toe with manee prettee, ornamental hews. She was so resplentent, almost ratiant in repose--the happee, appealing pigments an aesthetit reminter oph her lophlee warm spirit.

She shoot loog smashing 4 the phooneral.

Silliness aside, I do think the author did a good job of illustrating how easily Freedom (capital F) can be lost when little "unimportant" freedoms are given up without a fight. As the title indicates, this is an epistolary novel, and while it was a pretty easy read, the epistolary format didn't really ring true for me-too much exposition had to be done in letters, and the letter writing came across as a bit of a gimmick; I think maybe a few newspaper clippings might have been helpful in this particular tale. I'd like to say thanks to Thomas for his thoughts on epistolary novels; his words about dialogue in letters helped me to put together my thoughts on why I didn't care for the format of this novel.

Other reviews:

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know, and I'll add a link to your review.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Having Problems with Map App?

I just added the little interactive maps on my sidebar, but they seem to be giving me slight fits anytime I try to leave my blog. Is anyone else having trouble navigating here? If so, I'd really appreciate your letting me know, and I will remove the maps.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BBAW: What Are You Currently Reading?

As usual, I am a little late in jumping on the band wagon, but this week is Book Blogger Appreciation Week. You can join in the festivities and discover all kinds of new blogs over at the Book Blogger Appreciation Week website. While all the nominating and voting has already been done, there are still ways to participate, like with this meme. Several reading-related questions were asked, and readers had the option of picking one to answer. My choice:

What are you currently reading?

Well...lots of stuff. The book I am most currently reading is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but I've heard lots of good things about this book, and I really enjoyed Russell's A Thread of Grace, a very non-science-fiction WWII story. So far, I am not disappointed. Right now, I am about half-way through, and I am dreading finding out what happens because this is one of those books that lets you know right up front that Things Did Not Go Well, and already I love the people involved and I so want things to go well for them, but I know that they don't, and it is heartbreaking.

I am also about half-way through The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs. The title pretty much sums it up-A.J. Jacobs is attempting to follow ALL the rules in the Bible, not just the ones we all know and love like the ten commandments, but even the more obscure ones like attaching tassels to ones clothing and not wearing clothing of mixed fibers. There are lots of other non-clothing related rules, but I just can't conjure any of them up at the moment. I am enjoying this quite a bit-it's funny and educational and it's giving me a lot to think about.

Those are the only two books that I am "really" reading right now. I have a few others that I have started but abandoned along the way and may or may not get back to.

I started reading People of the Book: a Novel by Geraldine Brooks a couple months ago on my Kindle, and I would like to get back to it, I just haven't yet. This is another author whose previous work, Year of Wonders, I really enjoyed.

I just can't get into American Gods by Neil Gaiman even though I only have about 80 pages left to go (out of 588). It's been so long since I started reading this, that I don't know if I would have any idea what was going on if I went back to it anyway. I like the idea-the ancient gods, the old gods and demons of folklore and legend, vs. the new gods of technology and wealth and power-but I just can't get into how it's playing out. I know Gaiman has a huge fan following, and that many people consider American Gods his greatest work, and I guess that's part of the reason that I am so reluctant to abandon it-I want to be one of the cool kids! My husband also really liked this book, which is why I picked it up in the first place. I guess this way I can always say, "Well, I'm not sure I liked it as much as you did, but, you know, I haven't finished it yet-I'm probably missing a lot of stuff that happened at the end." :)

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie was a book club pick a couple months back, and I sort of abandoned it only because our book club hasn't had a chance to get back together to discuss it, and I know the person who picked it didn't even finish it. It's a true story about an African boy who decides he wants to go to Greenland and so he does. While some of the facts are interesting, there are a lot of things that I would have liked to have seen more follow-through on, cultural differences that are brought up but then never examined, for example.

Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stuart. This one isn't so much a sit-down-and-read-it-all-at-once book, so I don't feel too bad about this one. It is, however, a beautiful little book that I would actually recommend buying rather than borrowing. Some books just feel nice in your hands and make you feel a little bit decadent for sitting down and reading them, and this is one of those books. I ordered my signed copy directly from Amy's bookstore, Eureka Books, and you can too!

The Forgery of Venus: a Novel by Michael Gruber-This is another Kindle read that I started and haven't quite picked back up. I'm undecided on this one. I think it is going to be a lot of self-imposed work in the sense that I am only about one chapter in and already jumping online to research the paintings and artists that the author writes about because these are not topics that I am familiar with, and I suspect that I will enjoy the book a lot more if I know what the heck is being discussed. I think I would probably enjoy the book without the research, but I'm sure I would miss a lot as well.

Even though we were only supposed to answer one question, I think I also covered, "Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?" LOL-What do you think? ;)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day-September

How in the world is it September 15th already? As fall creeps up on us, head on over to Carol's to see what others have blooming in their gardens today.

First of all, I'm happy to report that Buster is blooming in the garden. We had quite a scare this past week with pancreatitis, so I am much relieved to see him feeling better. All my other blooms don't mean quite as much without Buster there to keep me company.

My lantana is still going gangbusters.

My ginger plants aren't quite what you see in the stores, but they are putting on some nice color.

I had a pot full of bark, and no orchids to go in it, so I had to buy some new orchids. That was the decent thing to do, right? Unfortunately, I didn't realize it until I started putting this post together, but the only one that has an identification tag is the dark purple one. The tag reads, "Bllra. Peggy Ruth Carpenter 'Jem'."

This unnamed Cattleya smells wonderful!

The alyssum seeds that I threw into my rose pot are blooming nicely, but they are starting to get a bit leggy.

This variegated grass gave me a nice surprise a few weeks ago when I went out and noticed these lily-of-the-valley-esque flowers peeking out.

Another nice surprise this year was my plumeria. A neighbor gave me a cutting off of her tree probably 6 or 7 years ago, and it is finally blooming! Yay! Plumeria are popular flowers for lei-making or for tucking behind one's ear. They smell wonderful and are beautiful in their simplicity.

Thanks for touring my garden with me again this month, and don't forget to visit our wonderful host, Carol, at May Dreams Gardens

Monday, September 14, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff-This was a quick, charming read which was inspired by Nymeth's review a couple months back (which also inspired some musings on my part). Anne Bancroft's introduction provides some interesting background as to how she came to play Helene in the big screen version of 84 Charing Cross Road as well as a lovely example of how a book can completely and unexpectedly speak to a reader's heart.

This is one of those books that I'd always been aware of but never had any idea what it was about. It is a collection of letters exchanged between the author, who lived in New York City, and the staff at Marks & Co., Booksellers in London. It begins in October, 1949, when Miss Hanff writes to Marks & Co. to inquire about some out-of-print books and continues through to October of 1969. During this time Miss Hanff becomes good friends with many people connected to the bookstore-employees, their family members, even one of their neighbors becomes a correspondent for a short time. While the letters almost always contain at least some small trace of business dealings (and quite a good deal of sarcasm on Helene's part), they also reveal Helene's matter-of-fact kindness, and the genuine appreciation of that kindness from her new friends in London. In a letter dated December 8, 1949, Helene writes:

Now then. Brian [British boyfriend of Helene's upstairs neighbor] told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co. I hope there will be enough to go round, he says the Charing Cross Road bookshops are "all quite small."

Helene takes care of her bookstore friends in small but thoughtful ways until the rationing ends and they do their best to return the favor in whatever ways they can. Throughout, Helene's love of books is also clear; I am unfamiliar with many of the titles she mentions and so, surely, missed a lot of her references, but I enjoyed her sharp wit as well as the mental image I had of the proper London bookstore employee who first encountered her biting sarcasm in a business correspondence. Heavens! How to respond to such a woman? (Professionally, it turns out, very professionally.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book-it was funny and touching and inspiring, all good things in my book!

Other reviews:

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know, and I'll add a link to your review.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009