Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

ElantrisHoly cow, has it really been eight years since I first read this book? It was definitely long overdue for this re-read, and this time I got to make a bunch of other people read it for book club! I love this power.

Eight years ago I was taken in by the first sentence — “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” This year? Same. Is that not a great sentence? Is Brandon Sanderson not a master of sentences? Ugh, so good.

I’ve explained the story pretty well in my first post about this book, so I’ll let that all stand and talk about how this holds up to a re-read. Spoiler: pretty well!

It turns out that I retained only the vaguest of details about the book, except for the one big reveal about why Elantris’s magic stopped working, so it was pretty much like reading the book for the first time. Except, of course, that I am a different person now, and so the constant sexism toward women, and, conversely, the Sarene’s constant commentary on the backwardness of Arelon rankled. Did Sarene have to be an underestimated and ignored component of Arelon society to achieve the books results? Probably not! Also, I’m not not a fan of stories where the characters are witty and smart and have answers for every problem thrown their way (see: everything Sanderson and John Scalzi have ever written), but it becomes tiresome after 600 pages to keep reading things like, and then Sarene was witty and smart and had all the answers, and so did Raoden, and then Hrathen used this against them, but it’s cool, Sarene and Raoden just invented better answers.

That aside, the plot is still really well done and the ideas of government as rule by the wealthy or rule by religion are almost creepily relevant today. I found myself drawing more than a few parallels between the power-hungry characters of the book and certain political figures who have recently come to power. Oh, politics. You never change.

I also still love the world that Sanderson built for this story, with its weird magic Aons and familiar world religions and strangely small footprint on what I presume is the Earth. Sanderson has written a couple of other stories meant to take place in the same world, but what I really need is a book about Dreok Crushthroat and maybe one about Fjordell before Wyrn Wulfden.

Probably the thing I liked least about this re-read, and this is a really weird thing, is that my husband listened to the book while I eyes-read it and it turns out that all of the proper nouns in the book are pronounced VERY DIFFERENTLY from how I think they should be pronounced. I would hear Scott listening to the book and be like, who the heck is Ay-hane? Oh, Ahan. And See-in-ay-len? Oh, Seinalen. Darn your vowels, Sanderson!

But hey, if you eyes-read it, you can do like my book club mate and just give everyone names like Bob and George and not even worry about it!

Recommendation: Totally worth a read, especially if you need a book where the good guys win. (Spoiler?)

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsEverything I heard about this book in the last few months indicated that it was a sort of spiritual (haaa) successor to The Sparrow, which I think we’ve established is my favorite book and is super awesome and therefore I was like, well, gotta read The Book of Strange New Things, then.

But what’s really fascinating about this book is how completely unlike The Sparrow it is. It has the same basic premise — dude goes to space on a mission trip to hang out with aliens — but that’s basically the only thing it has in common. So come at this book without all those preconceived notions, or you’ll find yourself fighting the story the whole time.

So in this story, a fella called Peter is chosen after rigorous interviewing to become a Christian missionary to a place called Oasis. He doesn’t know much about the private company, USIC, sponsoring his trip; he doesn’t know much about the aliens he’s going to meet; all he really knows is that he’s leaving his wife behind on Earth for a few months in exchange for an amazing missionary opportunity and lots and lots of dollars.

On Oasis, Peter finds his job both easier and weirder than he expected. The aliens already know about Jesus and are in fact clamoring to hear more stories from what they call the Book of Strange New Things. But Peter can’t figure out why his new congregation is so super into Jesus or how to tell these fetus-faced (his words!) aliens apart or whether said aliens have any emotions that he can work with in his ministry. And when he goes back to the USIC base, things are strange there, too. The place has almost no locks on any door and the technology is primitive and the workers communicate solely face-to-face and the magazines have any useful information about Earth ripped out and it’s just weird.

Meanwhile, Peter is getting messages from his wife, Bea, that indicate that life on Earth is not going well at all, with natural disasters and supermarket shortages and public services becoming completely ignored. And speaking of ignored, Bea is getting more and more irritated that her long and descriptive messages about her life are being met with simple responses or, more often, no response at all. Peter knows that he should care more about Earth and Bea, but he is just so far removed from everything except his aliens that anything else seems unreal.

And that’s the whole story, really. With all the mysteries and oddness in the space part of the book, I kept waiting for the Big Reveal — that USIC was actually some nefarious corporation, that Oasis was something more akin to Area X, that Bea’s notes to Peter were totally faked, something. But this particular story is just about a guy who goes on a dangerous mission and finds out that not going might have been the more dangerous option. Which is pretty cool, actually.

Also cool is just the way that Faber writes. He gives his aliens an accent by replacing some English letters with unpronounceable symbols, his descriptions really make you feel the difference between the sweltering but open outdoor living of the Oasans and the climate- and everything-controlled living of the humans, he writes the letters between Bea and Peter in such a way that you know exactly what is going to be misconstrued and how, and it is all so lovely. I will definitely be checking out his other book, The Crimson Petal and the White, as soon as there’s an opening in my reading schedule (a totally not metaphorical thing that I have).

Recommendation: For people who want to think some thinky thoughts about life and love.

Rating: 9/10

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 from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?

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

The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent (1 July — 3 July)

When I opened up this book and saw a letter (the kind you send), I was a little nervous. I’m not a big fan of epistolary novels (Ella Minnow Pea notwithstanding) in general, because the exposition is always unwieldy and annoying. However, the letter soon ended and the book became simply a description of the life of Sarah Carrier.

Sarah is, in the story, a young girl living in Massachusetts near the end of the 17th century. Her family deals with the usual things — smallpox, farming, family rivalries, accusations of witchcraft… well, okay, that one comes a little later. Sarah’s mother, Martha, is a bit of an independent woman, which is okay by her family and friends but not okay by really anyone else. When the Carriers move in with Martha’s mother, they are not well-received by the town and eventually Martha is accused of being a witch. The book follows Sarah’s perspective in all this and gives an interesting look at life in this strange time.

This description is a little weak, and I apologize for that, but I just didn’t really get into this book. It was interesting, certainly, and I was happy to read through the end, but it’s not some stunning new take on the trials or even on family dynamics. -shrug- If you like historical novels or novels about accused witches, you should give it a read, but everyone else could probably take a pass.

Rating: 6/10

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks (20 May — 27 May)

People of the Book is the fake story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated seder text that baffles historians to this day. Brooks took some of the facts of the haggadah’s discovery and created fictional characters and situations to explain how these things came to be.

Our protagonist, Hanna Heath, is a young but excellent book conservator who is tapped to handle the restoration of the book. While examining it, she discovers an insect wing, some wine stains, and a few salt crystals that pique her interest and get her asking questions. Although Hanna doesn’t get all the answers, we do — Brooks writes scenarios for all of these that give a sense of the “people of the book” and why it is so important and revered.

I quite enjoyed this book, though it was a bit of a slow go as the narrative jumps back and forth between Hanna in the present and the other characters in their respective times. I found these journeys into the past to be more exciting than the present narrative, in which we discover that Hanna hates her mother and doesn’t form lasting relationships and works with far too many young but excellent professionals. In the past, we discover the tyranny of religion, the compassion of individuals, and all of the discrete steps that had to be taken to make the Sarajevo Haggadah the complete book it is today. I can only hope that the haggadah’s true story is as excellent as its fake one.

Rating: 8/10
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