This book is worth every penny. I love the weight of a book in my hand to begin with, and Rules of Civility evokes an age of newsprint and hot ink. Th...moreThis book is worth every penny. I love the weight of a book in my hand to begin with, and Rules of Civility evokes an age of newsprint and hot ink. The characterization is top-notch, the plot surprising, the ending unexpected and refreshing--and Towles' form lives up to the content in every way.
The consummate perfection of Rules of Civility is in how it functions as a literary gateway for our generation. Within its pages, I found the best of all worlds: a fun, riveting heroine; a resonance with the glamor and period detail of The Great Gatsby (sans the things I hate about that book); a sharp, biting wicked streak of humor; and just enough experimentation to add spice to the book without detracting from its readability.(less)
I usually resist reading books that are recommended to me. It's a quirk of mine. I am, however, profoundly grateful that I was asked to lead a book st...moreI usually resist reading books that are recommended to me. It's a quirk of mine. I am, however, profoundly grateful that I was asked to lead a book study on "The Help," and that I therefore had to read it. This book is fantastic. It made me cry, laugh, and get angry. It made me examine my own behavior, and my treatment of others. This book is everything that a book should be, and it transported me into the kitchens and to the bridge games of 1960's Mississippi. Read. This. Book.(less)
"Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God?" -Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
Most of the time, science fiction pans out as some sort of adventure that could have, given a few tweaks and substituting a foreign planet for the Ozark hill country or Australia's Tanami desert, taken place on earth. So often, space travel serves only as a vehicle for earthbound creativity. Thankfully, the occasional author throws out conventions and does something new. Mary Doria Russell is one of those original few.
I fell in love after reading the first paragraph of The Sparrow. Russell's characters walk and talk and speak like us--and they curse and drink and suffer like us, too. I loved them all, each of them, as soon as they dropped onto the page. I believed in them, I lived vicariously through them, and I was betrayed along with them, and promptly realized that I had experienced exactly what I was supposed to.
Russell knows what she's up to.
The Sparrow looks at first like any other regular-Joe cosmic adventure: A nerdy technician, unable to sleep and bothered by the fact his tortured-soul love interest is falling in love with a priest, analyzes some files from the SETI project and finds the first legitimate proof of alien life. Instead of telling his boss, he tells his friends, one of whom happens to be the aforementioned Jesuit priest, who calls in his superiors. In the years that follow running across that initial radio signal, the Jesuit order sends out a mission to the alien planet. The technician, his love interest, four priests, an engineer, and a housewife-turned-doctor take off to make contact, battling the universal problems of relativity and the rigors of an alien planet. They make contact with two distinct alien life forms, make some disastrous mistakes, and the whole thing ends with the Sandoz, a priest, returning half-dead to Earth to face a well-intentioned inquisition, the sole survivor of the mission.
What makes The Sparrow unique is that it is beautifully written and beautifully designed, and that at its core it is a discussion of faith. This book digs its nails into the time-honored question, "Why is there suffering in the universe, and how should I deal with it?" The characters transform before your eyes into symbols, then back again into human beings, made of flesh and blood and bones, easily bruised. Symbols can walk on water, but Russell's characters walk on the ground, in the muck. This isn't a book you'll find in the Christian bookstore; the story is too secular, the characters' struggles too grounded in realistic circumstances. They are built up, broken down, deconstructed, beatified, utterly destroyed, and made very, very real. I can't say it any better than that.
Last month, I read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, a heady take on the age-old questions of "How does someone find meaning and peace in a universe...more Last month, I read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, a heady take on the age-old questions of "How does someone find meaning and peace in a universe filled with sorrow?" and, "How can a loving God tolerate the existence of evil?" The twist, there, was that this question was explored through science fiction, and the novelty of watching a theoretical Jesuit mission to another planet unfold made The Sparrow, in my eyes, one of my favorite reads of the year. The sequel, Children of God, is also worth reading--but for different reasons. Questions of faith still persist, but they are no longer the axis on which the story turns. Instead, questions of ethics rise to the fore, aided by the more pragmatic ramifications stirred up by the Jesuit's original mission. Practically speaking, first contact between alien species is bound to be massively impactful for all of the peoples involved, and this is the notion that Russell seizes upon in this sequel. As a general rule, first novels are tough acts to follow. Children of God is no exception. Although a highly original and well-written book, it does not quite live up to the gut-wrenching emotions and thought-inspiring dialogues of its predecessor. The people have receded into the background, and the story has taken over. When the Jesuits first arrived on Rakhat, they encountered the peaceful Runa--an intelligent, peaceful, and highly social alien race specializing in manufacture and trade. The Jesuits later learn that the Runa are the domesticated under-citizens of the Jana'ata, a genetically different species that has, through selective evolution, engaged in a sort of reverse-mimicry with its historical prey--the Runa. When the Jesuits first arrived, Runao and Jana'ata coexisted in a peaceful, albeit exploitative, relationship--the older and infirm Runao offered themselves up willingly as fodder for the Jana'ata, and the healthy Runao worked as servants and laborers. In return, the Jana'ata controlled the food supply, thereby controlling the Runa breeding cycle, and made matches in order to backbreed the Runao for specific social functions. As might be predicted, the Jesuits did not approve of any needless loss of life. The humans' numbers were thinned by disease and other mishaps. The survivors were separated, and the last of the Jesuit priests was shipped back to Earth alone by a UN-sent human consortium who set out to undo the damage inflicted unknowingly by the Jesuits. And so the first book ends. Children of God picks up with Emilio Sandoz's return to Earth. In a nutshell, he trains the next set of Jesuit missionaries and then is packed up and sent off to Rakhat again. The second party arrives on Rakhat many years later (time dilation is an important plot device in these books), only to discover that the ripple effects of the first human-Runa-Jana'ata encounter has upset the entire balance of power, government, population, religion, language, agriculture, and society on Rakhat. The rest of the novel is spent zigzagging back and forth through time, between the various characters at various stages of their journeys, as they attempt to deal with the changes. A greater number of characters in Children of God are Runao and Jana'ata than in the The Sparrow, and the general flavor of the book shifts as a result. The sequel is more "science-fictiony" than the original, and there is a great deal more travel and carnage. Russell moves a bit too quickly, perhaps, to make the impact of this violence truly felt--and perhaps she moves a bit too quickly overall. I would have liked some deeper digging on some of the themes she brings up, I'll admit, and a bit less of the helter-skelter schemings and rushings and this-happened-heres. But don't give up on this book! The flaws I mention are forgivable, and in comparison with the vast majority of science fiction out there, this book actually made me think.(less)
For the uninitiated, Entering the Stoneis about caving. Like Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, it's also about death. And like Refuge, it uses the one...more For the uninitiated, Entering the Stone is about caving. Like Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, it's also about death. And like Refuge, it uses the one subject to talk about the other. (Thankfully, unlike Refuge, Entering the Stone dedicates fewer pages to purple prose and to conversations that I find problematic.) Perhaps it is somewhat unoriginal to use a cave as a symbolic place of transformation, given the long history of Platonic philosophy's influence on Western society, but there is still some untrodden ground. Few modern cavers seem to have both the interest and ability to write about what they find in the deep darks, but few outside of their somewhat exclusive fold have the authority. Here is where Hurd finds a toehold--a tenuous, but interesting grip on the subject.
Hurd is what I would call a dedicated caver and what dedicated cavers would probably call an amateur. She recounts her beginnings here, in Entering the Stone, and I wouldn't really be able to tell you whether she continued to develop her love of the underground after the book was finished. Probably. Clearly, her decision to overcome her fears and claustrophobia was deeply rooted in her love for a dying friend--a friend who, apparently, was big into caves.
I think I connected with this book because of Hurd's seemingly effortless ability to explore the spiritual and emotional consequences of friendship, death, and healing through a physical exploration of certain caves and memories. Call it a metaphor, if you will, but a metaphor that is grounded in reality and informed by tactile experience.
The friend in question is practically absent from the book, save for a few brief comments, but is an essential figure nonetheless. This caving kick is something that Hurd does on her own, even when she's being guided and spurred on by other people, dying friend included. It is Hurd's way to grieve, and to lose herself, and to become something--someone--else. She uses the butterfly metaphor perhaps one too many times, and any reference to Plato is probably an excess, but I forgive her because she made me care about the caves, even though I really don't care that much about them as physical objects. She invests them with meaning and history and purpose, much of it manufactured by her own loss, and keeps me hooked by giving small spaces, rock formations, and moonmilk deposits metaphorical and personal dimension.
Hurd cleverly weaves in questions of preservation, and ecology, and human impact. Many other things are destroyed by human touch, but in the caves, the oil from human skin can literally turn the rock black. Kartchner Caverns becomes one of Hurd's case studies in the different ways to deal with cave tourism; after keeping its existence and location secret for well over a decade, its discoverers decided to make it a public showcase cave--with one of the most elaborate preservation systems ever constructed. Still, it is affected. Janitors can keep the formations well-misted, wash down the footpaths every night, and even corral stray cells of human skin (who knew that dandruff could have such a destructive influence?), but they can't keep the caves perfectly pristine. Ironically, the experience that Hurd finds so necessary to her own personal transformation is, on a large scale, bound to destroy the very spaces that she loves. Like all of the rest of us, she has Midas' touch.
I haven't been to any caves since I was a sophomore or junior in college--Devil's Den and the Devil's Icebox have been closed to the public for years now, due to the spread of White-Nose Syndrome amongst the bats there. And I'll be honest, those caves are not particularly impressive. I prefer green growing things, and rain, and wind. The only other caves I have been to are those around Carlsbad--and that was a guided, walk-in tour. I have never found caving to be a particularly fun experience, mostly because I'm claustrophobic and have never had an experienced guide to any of the more interesting caves. I have not been lucky enough to befriend any friendly cavers. And yet--and yet--after reading Entering the Stone, I'm beginning to see why people fall in love with the world beneath my feet. I'm beginning to wish I'd been along when Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts stumbled across Kartchner Caves, near Cochise. (less)