Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book 22: The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I decided to read this since I really enjoyed A Thread of Grace. When I first looked the novel up online, I was surprised to see that it was a science fiction story considering that A Thread of Grace was historical fiction. Since her historical novel was so good, I was kind of curious if her science fiction would be. Honestly, it's one of those books that could also be called a literary novel, but either way, I'm impressed since Russell did very well in both genres.

Like in Parable of the Talents, the last sci-fi novel I read, the reader already knows the outcome of the story in the beginning. The question is how did it get where it ends up. The novel begins in December of 2059 with Emilio Sandoz's release from the hospital. It is quickly revealed that he is the lone survivor of a space mission to a distant planet Rakhat, but not much is known about what happened in the end and why everyone else died or didn't return. Sandoz is a Jesuit priest so the Society of Jesus, who also sponsored the trip, take care of him and slowly get him to reveal the truth over the course of the novel. The story flashes back and forth between Sandoz's recovery and all the events leading up to the trip. One of Sandoz's friends, who works at the space station, discovers a signal from another planet, the crew gets assembled and trained, and leave to study the newly discovered planet. This all begins in 2019, and due to the planet's distance, it takes four years for radio messages to reach Earth, and 17 to actually travel between the planets (even though it seems like a year on the space ship). So by the time Sandoz gets back, 6 years have passed for him, but 38 for everyone on Earth.

In 2059/60, the priests and the world already know some of the very basic story, and can infere other things from Sandoz's appearance. It is obvious that he has been tortured and mutilated, but he is also seen as a villain (the reason why is explained later in the book) since he is called murderer and whore. Despite the horrible outcome, it wasn't foreseeable in the mission's interactions with the populace of Rakhat. The first few years are peaceful, and full of information with a few minor goofs and hickups here and there. Overall, however, they get along well with the villagers they live with. It isn't till much later after the tragic events occur that Sandoz starts understanding more about the underlying aspects of the culture, and how some of their actions have changed and affected the Runa, the species they are living with. I guess they forgot about that whole butterfly effect.

Additionally, Sandoz is dealing with severe psychological issues upon his return to Earth, and grabbling with his faith, wondering about the type of God he worships. With Russell's last novel, it turned out that the title was referencing a piece of religious writing (I can't remember if it was Christian or Jewish), but it's one of those titles that could be explained even without that verse since helping the Jews and fighting the Nazis in such dire conditions could certainly be seen as a sign of grace. Towards the end of the novel, I was really starting to wonder where the title The Sparrow came from - there weren't any birds, the space ship wasn't called that etc. Yet again, Russell was referencing a religious piece: "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it" (Matthew 10, 29). Of course, the question Sandoz must ask himself if it is enough for him that God watches, knows and cares, or if he believes that God actually acts and causes things to happen. If that is the case, he is going to have find a way to reconcile that with what happened in Rakhat.

Russell continues Sandoz and Rakhat's story in Children of God, which I'll be getting next time I make an Amazon order.

Book 21: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

In this sequel to Parable of the Sower, Butler contines the story of Lauren Olamina. It's about five years after the end of that novel, and while the country definitely hasn't recovered from all the economic and environmental issues, there is a sense that things are getting better. There are fewer people wandering the roads, though the situation is far from perfect, and violence and crime are still common. Acorn, the community Lauren has set up, has grown in numbers and is basically prospering, though in a very 19th century sort of way.

Religious leader Jarrett uses fear to get himself elected president, and once again, the country's standing starts worsening. He becomes involved in a pointless war, and his extreme right wing views lead to much bigotry and discrimination, In fact, he becomes the excuse for his followers to take over Acorn and turn it into a labor camp for the sake of "re-education." Due to this, Lauren loses her infant daughter who is "rescued" from her heathen family and placed in a home with good Christian folks.

The novel actually flashes between Lauren's journal entries and commentary from her now adult daughter with one or two entries from Bankole and Marcos Duran, Lauren's husband and brother respectively. As a result, no matter the trials that Lauren endures, the reader knows that she will eventually succeed in her goal even if it costs her her daughter. Honestly, I felt that the daughter judged her too harshly since she kept accusing her mother of choosing Earthseed, her religion, over her own daughter. She is bitter that her mother was never able to find her but her uncle was, not even giving her the benefit of the doubt considering that as a member of the same church that stole Lauren's daughter, Marcos might have a few better connections and resources.

In addition to being a mother-daughter narrative, Butler explores the affects of fear and ignorance on the population. Jarrett is able to exploit these two things to create an atmospehere that is incredibly intolerant. Any person on the street that doesn't fit into his or his followers' plans or ideology is suddenly prey and can be picked up for their own good and reeducated. Some people truly believe this will help, others just don't want to deal with the poverty. In the labor camp, Butler also looks at freedom and how easy it can be to dehumanize people. Lauren and her followers are degraded and treated like little more than animals but the same people that call them disgusting fornicators feel completely justified to rape them. Despite their superiority in numbers, technology and brutality prevent the prisoners from doing anything but merely surviving from day to day without any chance at organization or revolt.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Music Video

Matchbox 20 - Push

I'm not a big Matchbox 20 or Rob Thomas fan, but say what you will about the band, this is a really good song.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

History vs. Tourism

I've written before about growing up in Germany and how that influenced my approach to history. This weekend got me to thinking about it some more.

We had a four day weekend for President's Day, but since the new LT and I both had errands and things to take care of at home as well, we decided to go to Munich for two days instead of an extensive trip involving planes and so forth. It was her first time in Munich, and I haven't been there since I was 18, so we hit up some of the more obvious places, such as Schloss Nymphenburg, the Rathause, a few churches, and downtown. When listing places famous historic sites in the Munich area, I mentioned Dachau, and she expressed a strong desire to go see it. So that's where we went Sunday afternoon.

This is the third time I've been to Dachau Concentration Camp. When I was 8, I was shocked to discover such systemized human cruelty but also inspired to learn about the subject and I felt everyone should know about it. When I was 18, I went with my best friend at the time and my grandfather. My grandfather, who is German, seemed less than happy about going, but he took us. Being a rather unsympathetic 18 year old who tended to see the world in black and white, I felt like he shouldn't have a problem with taking us to Dachau and should face his country's history and past (not that he hasn't in his own way, I'm sure, but he's never talked about World War 2 much, except when noting his displeasure about me being in the military).

Now that I'm 24, I have very mixed and difficult reactions. And they were caused less by the place I was than the people I saw around me. Almost all of the people I noticed and saw were American. I heard lots of English around me, and a few other languages, but little German. And I was kind of annoyed. My first reaction was, "you come all the way to Germany, and you come straight to the concentration camps? There's more to Germany than just that." But more so than that, something about the fact that Dachau has somehow become a tourist attraction or site strikes me in the wrong way. I believe that Dachau should remain standing and open to the public as a reminder of what happened. It is an important historic landmark. People should know their history, but where is the line between a tourist site and a historical monument? While I think people should focus on other parts of German history and not just the Holocaust, I also hate the idea of Dachau just being another place to mark off on the check list of "Places to See in Munich," that somehow it is simply another famous site to say they've visited without recognizing its meaning. If it inspires people to learn more about the subject that's great, or if someone has an ardent interest in history and came for that reason, I also respect that, but how many people actually realize just how significant the Holocaust was? Is it wrong for me to almost want a dress code in place because I find the idea of someone walking around in pajama pants or sweat pants in a former labor camp where thousands upon thousands of people died wrong? Am I just taking things too seriously when I feel uncomfortable hearing people laughing while walking around near the crematorium? I don't think there is a way to reconcile the idea of keeping Dachau open to the public and avoiding it becoming a tourist attraction, but it just got to me this weekend and it was a really unexpected reaction.

Book 20: Dead to the World

Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

Even though I'm kind of trying to do the Cannonball Read 5K (though I doubt I really have time during the week to do that much reading), I read another of the Sookie Stackhouse novels over the weekend while in Munich. Since I figured I'd be sitting on the subway for a while, I wanted something that would fit in my bag without feeling like I was lugging a gigantic tome around (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, being a hardcover is rather hefty).

Gotta say despite my rant over the last one, I actually kind of enjoyed this one. Yes, the word a day calendar was still in play but less obnoxious, possibly because I already raged about it. There was another instance of Sookie being more innocent than she logically should be, but the characters were more interesting, and the story line as well. And even better, Bill barely made an appearance in this one - I guess the guy annoys me so much he kind of sucks the life out of the novels - no pun intended. While Sookie was far from dependent on him before, it was still nice to his presence removed from the action, and to no longer have him slightly influencing or controlling her.

Harris expands upon the shapeshifter community even more in this one, though of course they've been in play in all the novels. Now, however, Sookie is also learning a little bit more about their hierarchy, though just like with the vampires, she only has glimpses here and there. In this story, evil witches have come to town, erased the mind of Eric, the most powerful vampire in the area, and are trying to take over the area from other supernatural beings. I know, it sounds ridiculous. And it by no means has anywhere near the depth or intelligence behind it that Buffy does, which could also occasionally sound ridiculous. But hey, as a light (both weight and attention-wise) read, this worked well, and it was fun. After Club Dead, it was actually nice to see the series improve some rather than continue to get worse or more annoying.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book 19: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My mom sent me this book but of course I'd vaguely heard about it previously. When I read the book flaps, I remembered hearing that this was a retelling (reimagining/modernization) of Hamlet, as evidenced by names such as Claude and Trudy. In ways, that actually made this a difficult read - there is only one way for a Shakespearean tragedy to end, and while of course it's easy to feel sympathy for Hamlet and Ophelia in the play, there is also a sense that Hamlet was occasionally acting like a self-righteous jerk. Recognizing the inevitable fate of the fourteen year old mute boy in this novel, however, is a little more depressing. There's no other way it can end, but Edgar deserves his fate even less than Hamlet did.

The first two hundred pages describe Edgar's life on the farm where he and his family raise a special breed of dogs, known for their intelligence and training. While dog breeding isn't exactly a topic I have any interest in (I like cats), the story moved on quickly, and I was curious to see all the intricate details involved in their lives, and learn about Edgar and his family. After Gar, Edgar's father, dies, Edgar and his mother struggle to continue all their duties on the farm and deal with their grief. Eventually, they turn to Claude, Gar's estranged brother, for help. At this point, the novel starts to drag a little bit, and continues to drag after Edgar runs away from home. It doesn't really pick up again until Edgar meets and befriends a man named Henry. Like in the original Hamlet, once Edgar returns home, things occur very quickly, partially sped up by Claude's interventions and deceptions.

Being fourteen, Edgar doesn't have an actual love interest - his Ophelia is the dog Almondine. That's one other thing about this novel vs. the play - it's so much easier to deal with people suffering than animals, even fictional animals. Naturally, in addition to not being happy about the fate that awaited Edgar, I didn't want to deal with what would happen to Almondine or see the way Edgar treated her in his anger following his father's death. Overall, I thought it was actually a creative and well-done take on Hamlet (Edgar even uses the dogs to create the original play's play within a play), and the novel was very well-written. I think the middle could have been shortened, but other than that it was definitely worth the time.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book 18: The Bingo Palace

The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich

While there are a few Louise Erdrich novels I want to read, this wasn't necessarily one of them. A while back, a professor recommended this novelist, and cited one novel in particular, which actually sounds very intriguing. Erdrich's books aren't a series per se by any means, but they all revolve around the same community so characters weave in and out of her stories throughout the novels. As a result, as much as I wanted to read the one my friend recommended, I also decided I should read them in the order she wrote them. I liked Love Medicine and Tracks, but strongly disliked The Beet Queen. As a result, I was very hesitant about this one because the premise didn't sound that exciting to me, and it revolved around two characters that were the least sympathetic and interesting to me in Love Medicine (Lipsha Morrisset and Lyman Larmartine). However, I felt like I should stick to my plan, and go in order even though all the novels I really want to read by this author were written later on (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and Four Souls).

Considering my hesitations, the novel was better than I expected and I was actually willing to hear about Lipsha without getting irritated. In the beginning of the novel, Lipsha returns to the reservation after having been gone for a while, and immediately falls for Lyman's "girlfriend" Shawnee Ray. Their relationship is complicated, but they have a child together and seem like they'll end up together. Lipsha helps make things even more complicated since Shawnee Ray is obviously attracted to him, but also thinks he would be a bad choice. Unlike Lyman, Lipsha doesn't have much of future planned out and is incredibly unsettled and unstable. Shawnee Ray has to face a few options and choices in the novel, and ends up going against the wishes of a few characters in the novel to become more independent. The ending was kind of out there, but then again, that tends to be the trend for Erdrich. Except for maybe the last 20 to 30 pages during which the magic realism went a little overboard (or maybe I was just in a hurry to finish?), the book was good, but not great. At least, I'm another novel closer to the one I want to read.

Sunday Music Video

Stereophonics - Dakota

Book 17: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I read this book way too soon after having seen the movie to be able to make a true judgment on it. Instead I found myself comparing it to the movie, and I was honestly surprised just how closely the film followed the book. There were scenes where all the dialogue was straight from the book. I'm not sure if I ever seen such a loyal adaptation before.

Having said that, the major difference between the film and the novel was actually rather interesting to me. They didn't actually change any plot points in the adaptation, but in the film, the view points are different. It isn't until near the end of the novel that the reader ever hears April's voice and sees things from her perspective. The rest of the novel is almost entirely from Frank's view, with a few scenes focusing on the realtor and Shep Campbell, the neighbor. Whatever we as readers see of April is through their eyes. The film begins incorporating April's perspective early on. For example, the day following a big fight in the film, there are scenes of April at the house, going through some of their old things, and having flashbacks to moving to the area and her life with Frank early in their relationship. These flashbacks all happen in the novel as well but they are from Frank's perspective (and possibly one of them was from the realtor's, but I read this earlier this week, and don't have the novel with me).

I also kept seeing and hearing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet while reading the novel - not necessarily bad people to imagine in these roles since they are great actors, but I think I needed more distance from the film to really see the book on its own (or I probably should have read it first).

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Book 16: Club Dead

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

I actually read this one awhile ago, just didn't feel like saying anything about it. As with the others, the novel in and of itself is light entertainment, and as a whole, the stories are creative and entertaining enough. However, some small character quirks about Sookie are starting to bug me just a little bit. Every time she uses a big word, she makes a reference to her word a day calendar. It's not so much the fact that she has one of these that annoys me, but it's like the author cannot just let Sookie use a large word because she's smart or well-read, nope, she always has to be self-deprecating about it and explain why she would know such a thing. After seeing that damn thing referred to at least two or three time per novel, it gets irritating. There have always been a few times when it seems like Sookie is too innocent or prudish for her age. One example that comes to mind is her reaction to lingerie in the second novel, although she changes her mind once she sees Bill's reaction.

Club Dead is more focused than the last novel, with one mystery taking centerstage. Bill, while on a mission for another vampire, goes missing and Sookie has to help find him, even though he was last seen in the presence of an ex-girlfriend who wasn't quite so ex anymore. After three novels, I'm kind of bored with Bill, and wouldn't mind if Sookie explored some of her other options. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that the rest of the series is already here, I don't think I'd be in any hurry to go order the rest. It's not that they're bad, considering what they are, but they are a bit formulaic.

Book 15: Gods Behaving Badly

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

I didn't have very high expectations for this one. The cover is bright orange and has a Greek/Roman statue wearing speedos with smiley faces but the title caught my eye, and even though the description sounded like fluff, I couldn't resist after reading a few pages in the store. In the first few pages, Artemis stumbles upon a tree that used to be a woman until Apollo turned her into an eucalyptus - apparently this has become a habit for him.

In the novel, the ancient Greek gods are slowly losing their powers, and all live together in a house in London that is slowly falling apart. The descriptions of some of the gods living among mortals are entertaining, and of all of them, the most focus is on Artemis. Not ever really one of my favorites from mythology class (hunting and chastity?), she's actually entertaining in this novel.

After Aphrodite pulls a prank/exacts revenge on Apollo, two mortals get mixed up in their lives, and they have to reenact some of the old myths and go on an heroic quest to save the world.

I was actually pleasanty surprised. It's not great literature by any means, but its take on the ancients is funny, and the novel doesn't take itself too seriously.

Sunday Music Video

The Postal Service - Such Great Heights

Book 14: Yes Means Yes!

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

A collection of essays compiled by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (of Feministing), the book explores different and new approaches to sex education, sexuality and rape prevention. No one in any these pieces argues that their approach will end rape, but they call for a different and deeper approach than the basic no means no. Beyond just defining consent as not no, the authors call for a concept of enthuasistic consent, and a culture that recognizes women's desires rather than continuing to view them as the passive and receptive parties.

I really enjoyed Latoya Peterson's "The Not Rape Epidemic," which I of course expected, because I always like her writing at Racialicious, and also liked "Toward a Performance Model of Sex" because it dissed books like The Game. I would highly recommend "Trial by Media" and "An Old Enemy in a New Outfit" although all of the essays have something interesting and thoughtful to bring to the table. Some of it seems obvious, and yet still needs to be addressed given today's society. While I simply read straight through the book, each essay lists other essays that relates to similar themes at the end so the reader can choose whether or not to pursue a particular line of thought more, or to change directions.

Book 13: Loving Frank

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Despite the fact that I'm from Illinois, I know little to nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright. I've even been to a house he designed (oddly enough, I described that in my first ever blog post), but outside of famous architect, I couldn't have said much about him.

Loving Frank, while narrated in the third person, is told from the perspective of Mamah Borthwick Cheney. An early feminist and intellectual, Frank and Mamah become fascinated with each other after Edwin Cheney hires Wright to design and build his home. Eventually they begin an affair, and their actions set the gossip world on the fire as they travel to Europe together and leave their families for each other.

Not only does the novel detail Mamah's choice of love over society, but it documents her struggle to become an independent woman. Obviously very intelligent, Mamah still often finds it too easy to lose herself in Frank's strong personality and always questions her actions. In order to also have a life of her own, she translates works for Swedish feminist Ellen Key, someone whose work greatly inspired her. In the afterword, Horan says that not much of Mamah's original work or personal correspondence survives, so the letters and journal entries that are interspersed throughout the novel are also fiction with one exception. The novel features a deep look at a fascinating woman that in some ways was ahead of her times. It also offer glimpses into Wright, and shows some of his flaws alongside his genius. I was truly shocked by the ending, though Wright's fans may know what awaits them at the end, which will surely give them a slightly different perspective on things as they read the novel.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Book 12: The God of Animals

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

I'm not really sure what to say about this. It was good, but it was kind of a slow read for me. Alice Winston, the narrator, is a twelve year old girl who lives on a ranch. Her seventeen year old sister ran away from home to get married, her mother never leaves her room and she has no friends. After a girl at school dies, Alice becomes fascinated with her and imagines what things might have been like if they'd been best friends. This leads her into a somewhat inappropriate relationship with a teacher at school who had a similar relationship with Polly, the dead girl, previously.

More of the novel, however, is focused on Alice's home life, and describes how she and her father struggle to make a living with horses, and the compromises and sacrifices they've had to make. The novel occasionally gets into moral grey areas as Alice begins to grow up and sees things in a different light than before as she learns new sides of the old stories. Kyle doesn't glamorize any of the country life, and portrays their financial struggles very well without making it seem melodramatic. It would have been interesting to learn more of the backstories that Alice didn't know and was finding out bits and pieces to as the novel progressed, but Alice learned enough to see people in a more realistic way and three dimensional way.

Sunday Music Video

Third Eye Blind - Blinded

Someone asked me recently about music I listen to and favorite bands, and as usual I answered Third Eye Blind. Most people generally agree that their first album was amazing, but don't really enjoy their other albums. And honestly, Blue wasn't that great though it has some very strong tracks, but Out of the Vein was a pretty good album. And actually one of my favorite songs by them is from Blue:

Third Eye Blind - Deep Inside of You

And no, there isn't some hidden meaning in my song choice.

Book 11: The Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

I've read two of Butler's other series, which are both available as entire sets in the books Seed to Harvest and Lilith's Brood. Some of her themes from these earlier novels are also recognizable in this one, but she takes a different approach. Other than Kindred, this is probably my favorite of hers so far.

In all three of series mentioned above (there is a sequel to Parable of the Sower), Butler presents her readers with a future in which the government has more or less collapsed, people who can shut themselves off in a walled communities away from the drug addicts and criminal elements. In Seed to Harvest, Butler also focuses on a group of people that have telepathic abilities, while in Lilith's Brood an alien race interferes and more or less saves the remainders of humanity by mixing with them.

Parable of the Sower is the diary of Lauren Olamina, a minister's daughter that grows up in a walled community. Even inside the community, people struggle to make ends, but it is better than the outside. Lauren, however, realizes that they cannot remain this way forever, and prepares for the time when she might have to leave home, either to find a paying job, or because as she believes, the system cannot work, and at some point, the outside will force its way in.

In addition, Lauren struggles with her religious beliefs and can't find comfort in her father's god. She believes in change, and writes verses for a religion she labels Earthseed. As she sees it, she is simply observing the world, but she never tells her father about this. Due to her mother's drug addiction when pregnant, Lauren also suffers from a syndrome that makes her feel (or think she feels) the pain and pleasure those around her experience.

It is a rather bleak view of the future as some people find themselves reduced to slavery, and people live in fear of their lives, unable to leave their neighborhoods unarmed. And yet, it seems entirely plausible unlike some of Butler's other works which were interesting, but aliens? That's not going to really happen. Especially with the current economic crisis, some of this stuff seems like a less distant possibiliy as the gap between the rich and the poor widens more and more.