The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe last time I picked a book for my online book club, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time, and so when it finally came around to my turn again I decided to go with a foolproof selection — a book I’d read and loved and already foisted upon another group member, who also loved it. Co-member Mary says this is “cheating,” but I say it’s “not getting kicked out of the book club.”

It seems to have worked, as in fact all of the people who read it liked it, though we didn’t end up having terribly much time to actually discuss the book because of reasons. This is a shame because this book makes me want to talk about ALL THE THINGS.

Of course, as I said last time I read the book, a lot of what makes this story so interesting and wonderful is the way that Russell tells you things in stages — first you learn that Emilio’s hands are somehow no good, then you learn how they’re no good, then you learn why they’re no good — so I won’t spoil any of that here. It was really interesting on my second reading to see how Russell dances around certain subjects that become important later, some of which I missed the first time, but those reveals later were not nearly as exciting.

Another thing I noticed on my second reading was the stuff around the Jesuits in Space storyline; I didn’t remember going in how much world-building Russell does to create her version of 2019, which was 23 years away when the book was first published, 11 years away when I first read this book and only six years away now. The computing technology is surprisingly accurate, if awkwardly phrased in 90s speak, but there are some references to the fact that we’ve killed all the trees that make me very glad that we haven’t, though I guess we’ve still got six years. Russell, who lives in my beloved Cleveland, also hedges her bets by getting the Indians to the World Series, though of course they lose, because that is how Cleveland works.

Narrative-wise, I had trouble with the book last time because it spends a lot of time on some scenes I consider boring and absolutely none on others I am more interested in, and because the ending runs in front of you and slaps you right in the face when you think there should certainly be much more story left. I was still disappointed in that this time, especially regarding certain scenes where certain things happen to certain characters, but since I knew more of what was going on it was easier to see this as a function of the story being told by a reluctant narrator who wants to spend more time on the good things than on the horrible, awful things that happened to him. Seriously, poor Emilio.

Story-wise, I am still madly in love with this novel. I love that music sets off a space journey and that the Jesuits are way more organized than any government. I adore all of the humans brave enough to go to space and the Runa that they meet (though I wouldn’t want to live with them!). I appreciate if not enjoy all of the realistic consequences of this journey and of the human propensity to break the Prime Directive.

If you haven’t read this book, I really think you should, because it will make you think lots of thoughts and that is never a bad thing. Also Jesuits! In Space! You can’t go wrong.

Recommendation: For everyone, unless you are allergic to space priests, I guess, or very bad things happening to good people. There’s a lot of that.

Rating: 10/10

P.S. Apparently several years ago Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to The Sparrow, with the intent to have Pitt star as Emilio. Russell subsequently revoked the rights, and while I am sad not to have this fantastic book as a movie, I am very happy that I won’t have to worry about that casting.

Weekend Shorts: Wool #3 and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, Some More

Goodness, it has been so long since I actually read these stories that I can only hope I will remember all the good parts! With any luck I will be getting back into the swing of this, though, and there will be more short story goodness in the future. Especially this Wool series; it’s turning out to be really quite awesome!

wool 3Wool #3: Casting Off, by Hugh Howey
After the expectedly-not-as-great-as-the-first-story second story of this series, I was a little bit nervous about continuing on. For no good reason, it turns out! This installment opens with our newly minted sheriff, Juliette, heading out for a cleaning, which is a very bad thing indeed. She ponders just how she got herself into this predicament, which naturally segues into the actual story of how she got herself into this predicament. Yeah, it’s not the most original opening, but I am a total sucker for its kind and so this story scored points with me right from the beginning.

Howey gets into the meat of the political shenanigans here, with our new sheriff attempting to do her job and certain people making that basically impossible but with a shiny veneer of helpfulness that makes it hard for Juliette to argue. Unfortunately, the people who are actually being helpful to our sheriff are the ones who are about to make boatloads of trouble and make our opening happen. But it’s what happens after that opening sequence that makes me really super-duper excited for the next installment…. Man, I wish these stories were longer, so that I could say more about them, but on the other hand I can read more of them if they’re shorter, so…

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast“We Were Nearly Young”, by Mavis Gallant
Dang, this story. I didn’t really catch it while listening to the podcast, but I caught the gist of it in the discussion afterward with Antonya Nelson and thought it was pretty intriguing. Then I found a copy of the story here, and eyes-read it, and kind of fell in love with it.

The story itself is about a group of twenty-somethings all living in the same run-down building in Madrid in the fifties, being poor but being together and therefore being more or less happy, until such time as one of the twenty-somethings ruins the status quo. The group dynamics reminded me a bit of something like The Likeness or The Secret History, and so of course I was sold.

But what really makes the story so wonderful is the language Gallant uses, which is just so pretty that even though I wasn’t paying enough attention to it being read I knew it was a beautiful story. A line that especially drew me in in the print version: “It was not the English bun-face, or the Swiss canary, or the lizard, or the hawk; it was the unfinished, the undecided, face that accompanies the rotary sprinkler, the wet Martini, pussyfooting in love and friendship, expense-account foolery, the fear of the open heart.” Mavis Gallant, this is not the last time we shall meet.

“A Day”, by William Trevor
Where the last story was a bit confusing to me on first listen, this one dragged me right in. In it, a woman called Mrs. Lethwes spends a day pondering another woman called Elspeth. Elspeth is a bit of a mystery figure at first, is she Mrs. Lethwes’s sister? Friend? But as the story progresses, Trevor fills in more details about the Lethwes family and this Elspeth character, at least how Mrs. Lethwes sees and imagines them, and you (well, I) start to feel like you have totally had this particular day before in your life, up to and including all the attendant alcohol.

I think the best part of this story (spoilers?) is that you never find out what’s actually going on outside of Mrs. Lethwes’s head. Is Elspeth the way she imagines her? Is this day going to end the way Mrs. Lethwes thinks it will? Is it all just the alcohol talking? I DON’T KNOW AAAAHHH! And I love it.

Weekend Shorts: Human Division Extras and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The Human DivisionFrom The Human Division: “After the Coup” and “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today”

If you’ll recall, I read The Human Division in serialized e-book form, so when the official print compilation came out and had extras, I was like, hey, wait a second. Those extras have since been made available for free on the internets, but since I am apparently too lazy to make the required account and also since I happened to see the hardcover come into cataloging at my library, I figured I’d just grab the book and read the extras there.

“After the Coup” I have actually read before, when it was maybe on tor.com at some point, but I was more than happy to read it again. This story takes my good friends Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and puts them in a diplomatic situation that is really more humorous and disgusting than it is political. Wilson, the one with the genetically engineered body, finds himself recruited to an exhibition match in an alien martial art against one of said aliens, a sort of amphibious creature whose martial arts skills are a combination of awesome and totally cheating, but of course Wilson makes the best of it.

“Hafte Sorvalh” etc. was new to me, and differently interesting than “After the Coup.” This one is definitely political; the gist of it is that the resident Conclave (the bad guys, more or less) diplomat sits down to eat some churros which end up going cold while she explains herself and her race and the Conclave and the potential for upcoming war to some inquisitive schoolchildren. I like the explanations Sorvalh gives, and I like the way it sort of sets up what I assume will be the next set of stories in this universe.

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastFrom The New Yorker Fiction Podcast: “Reunion” by John Cheever and “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz

I’m finally catching up on my previously months-long backlog of podcasts, so of course it’s time to throw a new one into the mix! This is not a bad one to do that with, either, since the episodes are comprised of a short story and some commentary and thus take less than twenty minutes, at least so far. It is also helpful in my new quest to read more short stories, because a) I don’t have to actually seek any stories out and b) I get to listen to stories I wouldn’t have known existed to seek out.

“Reunion” (scanned copy here) is the very first story on this podcast, read by Richard Ford more than six years ago (I have a little catching up to do, yes). It is a very short story about a kid, probably late-teenage, stopping in New York City on a train layover to meet up with the father he hasn’t seen in three years. The father takes his son around some nearby bars, generally being an ass to all the wait staff and not generally getting a drink out of them, and the son realizes that maybe three years wasn’t long enough to have been away. I loved the way Ford read this story, making the father’s exclamations and insults both hilarious and depressing, and Cheever certainly nailed that awkwardness of seeing a person for the first time in a long time and not getting what you expected.

“How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” (nicely formatted version here) is a story that I probably would not have read on my own, and it still kind of isn’t. It stars a kid who, as you might guess, is explaining to someone (probably himself) how to date a girl, with contingency plans in case she’s white or black or local or an “outsider” or whatever. It’s an interesting look into the complexities of dating in a community I’m not familiar with, in a time — 1995 — that is so different from my own dating time, but with, in the end, a very familiar truth of what being a horny teenager is like. This story was read by Díaz himself from an older recording, with discussion by Edwidge Danticat afterwards, and I’m defnitely going to have to seek out work from both of these authors.

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good OmensHee. Teehee. Hehehehehe.

This book, it is delightful. I was hooked from the prologue, which begins with “It was a nice day,” ends with, “It was going to be a dark and stormy night,” and has many humorous sentences in between. By a few pages later, I was texting the friend who had recommended it to me, saying, “I am on page 12 of Good Omens and I may already be in love with it.”

And love it I do. It reminded me very much of the only other Terry Pratchett I’ve read (which was also amazing), but it still felt fairly Gaiman-y to me even though I can’t for the life of me think of a purely funny thing that I’ve read of Gaiman’s. Maybe it’s the pacing of the story that does it? I don’t know. It’s not important.

What’s important is that this book is a, uh, let’s say a divine comedy of errors? Because the two main protagonist-types are Crowley and Aziraphale, the former the apocryphal serpent of Eden and the latter Eden’s angel guardian. One fights for the evil side, one for the good, but both of them spend a lot of time hanging out on Earth, so when the evil side gives humans eleven years to enjoy their universe Aziraphale and Crowley find themselves working together to see if they can’t maybe postpone that end of the world thing a little while.

Their plan is to keep an eye on the Antichrist and get him to make appropriate world-saving decisions, but of course it turns out that they’re keeping an eye on the wrong kid and with just a few days left in the world they have to go find the right one. Others are looking for the child, too, including the Four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” and an occultist following the predictions left by her always-correct-even-if-you-don’t-know-it-until-later ancestor.

Although there is this plotline — Save the Antichrist, Save the World — most of the story dances around it, focusing instead on how the different characters interact with each other, what the meanings of “good” and “evil” really are, and how our human world came to be so immensely screwed up. And as I may have mentioned, it’s really all about the writing, and passages like the following:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

The ending goes on a bit long, and it takes rather a lot of contrivance to get there (but how else would you?), but I was still quite satisfied and mostly I plan to remember those delightful parts anyway.

Although I read about half of it in print, I did end up listening to the whole thing on a quick road trip, and I can say that the audiobook narrator is a perfect fit for the book. Martin Jarvis has a lot of fun making up voices for the large number of characters and imbues them with the incredulity required to live in this very strange universe. If you need a good listen, check this out.

Recommendation: For lovers of Gaiman, Pratchett, Fforde, and other fine masters of British humor, or really just anyone who needs a laugh.

Rating: 9/10

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

To say nothing of the dog! This book kind of broke my brain, on account of it’s about time travel and there is nothing simple about time travel and to make it worse Connie Willis invents a time travel science and when you actually try to explain time travel you are going to make brains explode.

But what I love about this book, and part of why I’m going to go find some more Connie Willis books and read them ASAP, is that the time travel totally breaks the brains of the people doing the time travelling. In multiple ways! First, they don’t really understand it any better than I do, and second… oh, second.

“It’s no wonder they call you man’s best friend. Faithful and loyal and true, you share in our sorrows and rejoice with us in our triumphs, the truest friend we ever have known, a better friend than we deserve. You have thrown in your lot with us, through thick and thin, on battlefield and hearthrug, refusing to leave your master even when death and destruction lie all around. Ah, noble dog, you are the furry mirror in which we see our better selves reflected, man as he could be, unstained by war or ambition, unspoilt by—”

And then the protagonist gets time travelled, but the point of it is that this whole soliloquy is part of the “maudlin sentimentality” that comes with time-lag, which encompasses many amusing (to the reader) symptoms and is a result of too much time travel. Willis writes these passages with obvious delight, and I can’t help but love them.

The plot of the book is… simple… Ned Henry, our protagonist, is charged with finding this weird statue thing called the bishop’s bird stump, which is apparently very ugly but which is required by a beast of a woman, Lady Schrapnell, to complete the rebuilding in 20… something… sometime in the mid-21st century… of a cathedral that burned down in 1940. Anyway, the vagaries of time travel mean that Henry and others can’t get anywhere near the cathedral at the right time, and so they can’t find this thing, but Lady Schrapnell is very persuasive and keeps sending Henry back in time until he gets totally time-lagged. The only cure is rest, which he can’t get in the present time with Lady Schrapnell all a-crazy, and so he gets sent to the late 1800s instead to help return a cat that got mistakenly time-travelled when it should perhaps have been drowned. Then things start to get crazy.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book, which also features 1930s mystery novels, jumble sales, séances, crazy university professors, and many allusions to the book Three Men in a Boat which I must go read immediately, because it’s got to be pretty awesome if it inspired this.

Recommendation: For those who enjoy being totally confused and bewildered.

Rating: 9/10
(TBR Challenge)

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I’ve had this book finished for a while, but I’ve been having trouble figuring out what to say about it. My friend Monica recommended it to me several times over the last year because of my love for The Likeness, which Tana French has said is partly based on The Secret History. I can definitely see the basis there, but I think I was expecting too much The Likeness and just couldn’t get behind Tartt’s story.

Tartt starts with the end, with our hero Richard Papen remembering the time he helped to kill one of his college friends, whose name is — well, was — Bunny. Lovely, yes? Papen then zooms himself back in time to tell us all about how he ended up at a small rich-kid college in Vermont, where he stumbled into a very strange learning situation, with basically one professor and five classmates studying ancient Greek. He recalls breaking slowly into the tight-knit group of five, learning all of their idiosyncrasies, and then of course helping in the murder of one of them.

The Secret History necessarily focuses hugely on the interpersonal dramas between Richard and the group and all permutations of members in the group, which is a bit slow, but it makes up the pace a bit when Bunny’s death is being investigated and the suspense kicks up. But then, and this is what really killed the book for me, that intensity dies down and we’re back to the interpersonal shenanigans. These shenanigans are certainly interesting, and I was curious to know what would happen, but after a while I just felt like I didn’t really care anymore if it meant I had to trudge through so many more pages.

I’m still not sure if I liked this book, though I can certainly say I’m glad it exists if it sparked Tana French’s writing! I think perhaps this will be another of those books that grows on me with time.

Recommendation: For the interpersonal melodrama crowd, and also anyone who gets a kick out of boarding-school-style novels.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich

The other day at the library, I asked a woman if I could help her find anything. She was standing in front of the “new mysteries” section, and she said that she’d read all of these already and asked if I could help her find a good action or adventure mystery. I was like… um…

Because I haven’t read an adventure-y mystery in a really long time! Most of my fare is either classics or literary-style mysteries, neither of which would probably have appeased this woman. And in fact, I realized that of all the mystery authors who get multiple shelves with multiple copies of each book? I’ve read exactly zero. I decided I ought to rectify this, so I grabbed a copy of One for the Money and went to town.

Well. I suddenly remember why I like the classics and the literaries. Stephanie Plum is not a detective; she’s an unemployed lingerie-buyer who conveniently has a bail bondsman cousin who, with a little blackmailing, is willing to let her “shag” (you would not believe how happy I was to discover the 1994 definition of that word!) a bail jumper for a cool ten grand. And this jumper is none other than some guy who diddled her in kindergarten and then again in high school. And he’s a cop. Who killed someone. And Plum is totes going to get him. Somehow.

I will grant that it was interesting watching Plum be a complete idiot (V.I. Warshawski she is NOT) about… everything related to nabbing a bail jumper, and also to watch the strange cat and mouse game that she and the guy were playing. But the whole story just required this drastic suspension of disbelief that I just could not manage. Many things were incredibly convenient, many people were conveniently very stupid and/or bad at their jobs, and Plum seemed pretty much devoid of common sense and yet still managed to get her man.

It makes the brain hurt.

Please, suggest to me another popular mystery author, and perhaps a title of his/hers that won’t make me want to cry over the inanity?

Rating: 5/10
(A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.