25 October 2014

My travels in outer space with The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This is my favorite Sesame Street song of all time. I could not get enough of it when I was a kid. Susan gives a lot soul to the thought that kids will one day live in space. Somewhat apropos for this review.

I think the fact that the first couple of chapters in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell take place in Italy and Puerto Rico made it easier to get into this science fiction tale. True, the action is set in 2059 and 2019 respectively, but the familiar setting made it all feel quite 'normal' at first. The basic plot is this: After radio transmissions are discovered to be emanating from the Alpha Centauri star system, a group of Jesuit priests convince their hierarchy to fund an exploratory trip to find the sentient beings sending the signals. I'm no expert on Jesuit exploration throughout history, but if I believe this text, their intent seems to be more about seeking knowledge then it is about converting anyone--anything--to Christianity.

While the rest of the world loses interest in the alien radio signals and/or takes years debating what to do with the knowledge, the Jesuits use their vast financial and intellectual resources to to mount a secret trip of their own.  But wait how is that possible? Well, the novel, which was published in 1996 posits that in the year 2019 there will be a whole lot of technology that makes such a trip possible. The main thing being that asteroids which had been mined for various natural resources could be used like a spaceship to fly the couple of light years it takes to get to the source of the signal.

Like all good expedition stories, and I guess all good expeditions, this one has a cast of characters who have a complementary set of skills and make a fairly well-rounded team. They have a linguist, a medical doctor, scientists, a musicologist, and they are all smart as whips and can do just about anything. About 4 or 5 of them are priests with two women and additional two men.

On many levels I liked this book a lot. As someone who mainly reads things based in facts as we know them today, I enjoyed letting myself into other times and other worlds. I enjoyed the optimism of a future that may have included the reintroduction of indentured servitude but didn't seem to have anything to say about the doom and gloom of global warming (the number one angst-inducing, underlying current in my psyche). I also enjoyed reading about likable characters who use their abilities to get something done. I love it when people use their talents to achieve things, whether it is baking a pie, organizing a drawer, or travelling through space.

It was also fun to read about the world they encountered when they make it to Rakhat. Ah yes, Rakhat--thankfully the book is relatively low on made up words and language. Didn't make my eyes cross.

And that is where I will end the recap. Enough to give you a flavor without giving away too much or taxing my limited abilities to describe plots.  But, I do have plenty more to say about the book. There was so much to stimulate thought and conversation. Here are some of my hot button topics:

  • It is amazing that in 1996 an author thought that indentured servitude would make a comeback so that it would be old hat by 2019. Ditto for asteroid mining. I wonder what I would think 23 years into the future could be like?
  • It was nice to see the part of the Catholic church that is interested in expanding, rather than closing, minds. On the other hand, I found all of the 'God's will' stuff to be a little tedious at times. It's not entirely heavy handed in that regard, but it does seem to be wanting to work out theological issues about belief about which I am pretty apathetic.
  • Not that I have read much sci-fi, but it would be nice for someone to come up with a future or alien world that doesn't cleave so much to our understanding of gender roles. The aliens in this book kind of challenge it but the human characters don't so much, and the way the author explains the alien gender issues seems so rooted in the past--as in our present. Why do the child-bearing aliens have to be considered the females? It is interesting how our imaginations can turn asteroids into spaceships but can't comprehend a future that is more fundamentally different.
  • Kudos to Russell for understanding the importance and prevalence of electronic tablets. I know other science fictions, like Star Trek, have also predicted this as well. It was also kind of interesting to see how she wrote about the Web from her 1996-vantage point. She definitely sees it as a useful tool, but one doesn't get the feeling she entirely understood how important the web would become. And I think it is accurate to say that she didn't realize that all those tablets would use the Web as their content server.
  • I had a few quibbles with the plausibility of certain situations, but nothing that I can even remember and nothing that detracted from the overall enjoyment of the book.

I really liked the characters, but I would have liked to have seen them encounter more things and do more things on Rakhat, and maybe see a bit more about how the rest of humanity responded to their expedition. But it didn't seem incomplete, just kind of left me wishing for more.

The next, and final statement is kind of spoilery, so caveat lector...

As much as I wanted them to explore more, I liked the fact that the author wasn't afraid to kill most of the human explorers off. Just think of all the explorers throughout history who have died mid-exploration. Their discoveries, and those of explorers after them, eventually fill in the blanks for us looking back at the past--or indeed form part of our overall frame of reference and how we understand the world, but if we break down those discoveries into their component parts, we come to individual humans who die in the middle of what they were doing. Their stories interrupted.  You see what I mean about this book being a good conversation starter?

, but was also gratified that the author wasn't afraid to, well this really is going to be spoiler-y, kill so many of them off.

12 October 2014

Bits and Bobs (the question mark edition)


Could Science Fiction be not as bad as I thought?
For those who listen to The Readers, you will know that Simon accepted a challenge when he recorded a special episode with Michael and Ann from Books on the Nightstand. They decided that the four of us would read each others' favorite books. Ann's choice was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I groaned when I heard that it was science fiction. Despite my absolute love of Atwood's "speculative fiction" MaddAddam trilogy, I can't say that the genre interests me much. I (most certainly wrongly) equate it with all kinds of too colorful covers, made up facts, unpronounceable names, and pimply, greasy-haired teens with "Why be Normal" buttons pinned to the lapel of the vintage overcoat they picked up at Ragstock for $5.

Much to my surprise I ended up liking The Sparrow quite a lot. It hooked me quickly. I founded it compelling enough that it pushed aside about four other books I was reading at the time. I was going to write a quick paragraph about it in this post, but then I realized I actually want to write a real review of it. There were so many things about the book and my experience reading it that I feel the need to talk about it. No doubt I will have a chance to do that on The Readers but I don't think we are going to have that discussion until 2015. It's one of those books you want to talk about. Even absent knowing anyone in real life who has read it, or who would read it, I started talking about it with friends. That conversation didn't go very far.

So I figure it this way, any book that I find so compelling to both read and talk about can't be too bad right? I know there are large swaths of sci-fi that I would not find compelling at all, but it made me think there might be more opportunities for me to enjoy the genre than I previously thought.

Why don't I have a favorite book?
Choosing my book for the above mentioned favorite book challenge on The Readers and Books on the Nightstand was not easy for me. I just don't have a favorite book. I know that many real readers (like some of you all) are capable of coming up with one book about which you don't mind saying "this is my favorite book". Even though you have ten other books that are closely jockeying for the top spot, you still feel okay, perhaps even good, choosing just one. I just can't. I have had favorite books at different times in my life, but to look at all of them and say "this is the one" seems like a ridiculous and ultimately unfulfilling activity. Heck, even if I segment it into periods of my life I can't narrow it down to a single book.

Grade School: Harriet the Spy (Fitzhugh) and The Ark (Benary-Isbert)
Junior High: I read a lot, but no real recollection of a favorite.
High School: Narcissus and Goldmund (Hesse) and On the Beach (Nevil Shute)
College: The Edible Woman (Atwood), Where Angels Fear to Tread (Forster), and The Carnivorous Lamb (Gomez-Arcos)

And then, after that it degenerates into a mass of really good books that I really liked and sometimes loved, but nothing that comes close to being able to beat out all the others that I also really love. In the end, for the challenge on the podcast I made my choice not just by choosing a well loved book by one of my favorite authors, I also kept in mind what I thought others might enjoy and what I thought deserved a broader audience. A book that I knew that bookish people would love if they knew it existed. That's how I came up with my choice of Swann by Carol Shields. But even with that, I haven't read it in years. Will it still be a favorite?

Anyone else annoyed by Goodreads' iPad update?
I've never been much of a fan of Goodreads' iPad app. Compared to the webpage interface, I always found it a bit clumsy and lacking in easy functionality. I tended only to use it for viewing information. For any sort of input I would go to the web version. Well they updated the app and I must say I find it even worse than it was before. Has anyone else been similarly annoyed? I thought since the deathstar purchased Goodreads and began scooping up NSA-level data on our habits the product would get better. Then again, I also expected all sorts of aggressive advertising, and pay-walls for certain features. Of course that might be still to come. Still, don't you hate it when something new turns out to be something worse?

The good old days before they made an okay thing worse.

How is it possible I didn't enjoy a book sale?
My new job is walking distance to the Arlington County Central Library which has a big, blowout book sale each year. When I showed up with my empty book bags two weeks ago, it was a week too early. My disappointment was palatable. So when I got there on the right day this past Friday I was loaded for a good time. The fact that I was able to go during a week day rather than on the crazy, busy weekend also had me quite excited. But when I got there I was almost immediately disappointed. As I looked at the first shelf I thought "you didn't like this book sale last year". Then I tried to figure out why.   One of the big reasons is that it takes place in a parking garage and I think the light levels are a little too low for good book hunting. Unlike many other big book sales this one has most of its offerings on shelves rather than tables. This makes it much hard to comb through the stock. They also have the fiction broken down in a way that isn't very helpful. Mass market classics, trade paper, hardcovers that seem to also have mystery and sci-fi mixed in, a section called literature, and then one simply called "old books". And aside from the rather dusty, not very interesting old books, most of the stock seemed to consist of lots of recent titles. I tried my best to focus but realized this sale, as big as it is, just isn't for me. Still I did manage to buy three. But none really made me jump up and down.

Are we really here for the books?
I know we all found each other over our love of books and reading (two different things in my estimation), and I know I couldn't turn this blog into just a big dump about the ups and downs of my life and have you all still show up from time to time. But it is amazing to me (in a good way) how posts about more than just books always do better in both page views and comments than the ones solely focused on books. I know other bloggers have found this as well. Is this the online equivalent of the book club that is really a wine drinking in the presence of books club? Even if that is so, I don't think it matters. If book are the very pleasant excuse for humans to interact with each other, why not?

05 October 2014

My new reality - the end of my blogging days?

Continuing the chronicle of my re-employment, it seems appropriate that I examine the future of my blogging life. Having a job that has me writing eight hours a day, do I really have the mental energy to come home and write a blog?

I know some of you love a naval gazing blog post, and others loathe them. I'm kind of in the middle, I kind of like them but I also feel like some bloggers take it all way too seriously. If you aren't having fun, pack it in. No one is paying you (and, I hate to break it to you, probably never will).

Rather than blather, I can sum it up it up pretty quickly: I am not going to stop blogging. I like the social network blogging provides too much to let it go. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and The Readers podcast just aren't enough.

So you are stuck with me. And, since I have a pile of books that I really need to say something about, I am going to say something about them.

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler
British woman moves to New York to get a Ph.D at Columbia. Gets job in used bookstore. Gets pregnant. A somewhat mediocre but also somewhat enjoyable read. I found myself having to suspend my disbelief a bit too much for such a non-fantastical, everyday sort of story.

contrary to this cover, I didn't listen to this book
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I was forced to read this by Simon Savidge and his Booktopia-induced peer pressure. I didn't hate it but would have put it down at 20 pages had it not been for the aforementioned peer pressure. I'm not sure I can describe what I didn't like about the writing, it felt a little too something. Clever isn't the right word. Forced. I think forced is the word. Flynn had a great idea and honestly comes up with twists and turns that are fascinating and compelling, and perfectly anxiety inducing. But it felt kind of forced. No interest in seeing the film at all.

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor
I enjoyed this book-based mystery way more than I thought I would. I'm not much of a mystery person. I hate murder mysteries. They are too often too pat and more disturbingly, I don't like the casual way they treat murder. This one was low on violence and high on book-related intrigue in Paris. The first of the Hugo Marston mysteries. I wonder if I would like any of the others?

An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
I chose this one so I could participate in Aarti's A More Diverse Universe event she hosted on her blog Book Lust. My reading tends to be pretty white and Anglo-American so I welcomed the chance to branch out a bit more. Plus I had read two Adichie novels this year and loved them so I was interested in reading more great fiction by authors of color. Unfortunately my new job kind made it somewhat difficult for me to get my stuff together in time to participate. I did, however, really like An Untamed State. The story of a Haitian woman, married to an American and living in the US who gets kidnapped while visiting her wealthy parents in Haiti. She suffers unspeakable acts for 13 days while her father tries to out macho the kidnappers. Then the novel follows her trying to come to grips with her life once she is free and back in the US. Pretty compelling reading and Gay's writing has me wanting to keep my eye out for future novels.

I had two other books I was reading for this challenge. One was a graphic novel written by a Chinese woman which I found tedious and didn't finish. And one is a slightly boring story of an Indian chef during the time of partition. That one I still intend to finish. I guess when all was said and done Aarti's event was good for me. Got me to expand my horizons a bit and remind to continue to make a bit of an effort to be more diverse going forward.

The Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Another bookish mystery, but much more complex than the Mark Pryor mystery. This one has a bit of everything. Lots of old books, secret libraries, a fire-damaged villain, a masochistic policeman, connections that will make your head spin, and all set in Franco-era Barcelona. I really enjoyed this book. It was like Alexandre Dumas meets Wilkie Collins meets someone a little more modern.

Sarah Morris Remembers by D.E. Stevenson
This may fall in the bottom third of all the Stevenson novels I have read. But I still loved it. It was the perfect comfort read as I started my new job and needed something to unwind with. I won't bother with any plot description. If know me and my blog, you know the general gist of her work. If you don't just use the search window to see what else I have written about her.

My Wish List by Gregoire Delacourt
Story of a provincial French woman who wins the lottery and keeps it secret until she figures out what to do about it. In some ways I loved this book. It had a touch of Mrs Harris Goes to Paris about it, but deeper and more thought provoking than that. And the overall message of the book I found interesting and comforting. But there was a twist, that really annoyed me. I didn't want it to be that book. Now that I know that twist, I think I would enjoy the subtleties of the story more than I did the first time around.