On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

On the Move_ A Life - Oliver Sacks Read Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life and prepare yourself for a series of vignettes by a master storyteller. It’s as though Oliver has arrived at your dinner table to regale you with anecdotes, memories, and stories of his career, travels, writing, relationships, loves, and life. As a reader, you want to make sure his wine glass stays full, so that he keeps on talking.

Sacks’ enthusiasms are deep and expansive. It’s this passion, palpable warmth, and self-deprecating charm that compel you to adore him. His fascination with the brain, deep respect and appreciation for science, and empathy for his patients anchor the book. Around these snapshots of his career are stories about his love for California in the 60s, his passion for motorcycling, weightlifting and the Muscle Beach scene, his relationships, and youthfully prodigious drug use.

This book is worth your time.

June, 2015

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children-of-god Children of God is the sequel to The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell’s fabulous Jesuit time-travel tale. While I enjoyed this book and recommend it if you’ve read The Sparrow I found the plot, pacing, and new characters disappointing.

Emilio leaves the priesthood and falls in love with Gina Giuliani, ex-wife of Camorra mobster Carlo Giuliani. They’re set to marry, and suddenly, Carlo beats and abducts Emilio to fulfill the Vatican’s wish for Emilio to return to Rakhat. It’s this beating and abduction that disappoints. The philosophical discussion about whether the ends justify any means in the name of God falls flat. There had to be a better way to get Emilio to choose to return to Rakhat on his own terms.

The plot’s pace flags at times; Emilio arrives on Rakhat only after 90% of the book is complete. It seems odd that as a reader you have to wait that long for that main event in the book to take place. Rakhat’s political and social landscape have altered dramatically in the years since his departure; the Runa have overthrown the Jana’ata in an uprising initiated with Sofia’s prophetic chant in the Kashan massacre: We are many. They are few.

Sofia is revered on Rakhat as a revolutionary, toted about in a sedan chair as if she were royalty. Life on Rahkat has been hard on her and she’s bitter about losing her son Isaac, an autistic savant who essentially just wanders away from her one day, and never returns. There is a sad irony in Isaac. As an autistic, he can’t relate or connect socially. He’s born to a mother who used intelligence as prophylactic against human connection, who sold her incisive mind to escape prostitution.

Sofia and Emilio’s eventual reunion is awkward and tense, poisoned by Sofia’s bitterness and Emilio’s still-precarious emotional state.

While the prose is almost as beautiful as The Sparrow, the new characters — especially Gina, her daughter Celestina, and the second Jesuit mission crew (Carlo, Danny Iron Horse, Sean Fein, Frans, and Nico) — feel like one dimensional caricatures. It’s particularly disappointing because the characters in The Sparrow were deep and interesting and original. It’s too bad that so few of them lived to appear in the sequel.

If you enjoyed The Sparrow, you should read this book, though prepare yourself for a different sort of a ride.

May — 2015

Isaac makes a song of DNA

…he had set himself the task of memorizing every base pair in human DNA, having assigned a musical note to represent each of the four bases–adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. He would listen to the monotonous four-note sequences for hours.

“Sipaj, Isaac,” she’d asked when this jag started, “what are you doing?”

“Remembering,” he said…

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

TheSparrow I stumbled on The Sparrow from a tweet by Erik Westra. Erik is gold when it comes to books. I read and loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomena on his recommendation.

Like ACoVP, The Sparrow is a beautiful and poignant novel which tells the story of a family made, not chosen. A disparate set of earthlings travel light years to the Alpha Centauri system in a bid to find intelligent life — the singers they interpret via radio signals on earth.

When the travelers, (Emilio Sandoz — Jesuit priest/linguist, Dr. Anne Edwards and her engineer husband George Edwards, Sofia Mendes, an artificial intelligence expert, astronomer Jimmy Quinn, music expert Alan Pace, botanist Marc Robichaux, and their leader, D.W. Yarbourgh, the Father Superior) arrive on Rakhat — a beautiful planet with three suns — they encounter the Runa, a species of nonviolent gatherers based in Kashan. Supaari VaGaygur, a third-born Jana’ata merchant, supervises trade in the Kashan region.

This book is so beautiful in so many ways: the anthropological exploration of Runa and Jana’ata as species, their respective societies, and cultural norms is fascinating. You almost feel as though you’re a silent participant on the scientific mission. The characters are exceptionally well drawn; they’re complex and conflicted and beautifully flawed. It’s the relationships between the humans — how they eventually drop their masks to embrace their plight on Rakhat and surrender to one another — and to love — that’s most satisfying.

While this book is about exploration and the search for alien sentience, faith is the dominating theme.

The Sparrow explores faith and the opposite of faith — despair — the state of being in which the faithful feels that God has abandoned them. Emilio Sandoz suffers a crisis of faith, questioning why a just and loving God would allow the cruelty, depravity, and brutality he suffers on Rakhat. It’s only through a harrowing confession that as a reader you must bear witness to, that you begin to understand Emilio’s despair and God’s part in it.

This book is a about predators and prey, the helpful and the helpless, about how in extreme cases we must be completely stripped bare — become naked before God — in order to regain our humanity.

“So God just leaves?” John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. “Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”

“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us and remembering.”

“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it.'”

“But the sparrow still falls,” Felipe said.

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I read this book twice, back-to-back. It’s worth your time.

March — April, 2015

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

300px-WoT08_ThePathOfDaggersThe Path of Daggers book eight of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series — revolves around rebellion and mystery.

The rebel Aes Sedai, led by Egwene al’Vere clinging perilously to her Amyrlin Seat, open a traveling window in the last couple pages of the book, foreshadowing the pending war with Elaida’s forces.

The great mystery? Mat Cauthon is still where we left him at the end of book seven: buried (but presumably still alive) under a pile of rubble.

While the plot still lollygags aimlessly for hundreds of pages, mired by unnecessary scene description, dozens of meaningless characters, and an anti-climactic Seanchan battle scene in which Rand nearly fries himself and everyone around him misusing the “sword-that-is-not-a-sword,” I need to know if Perrin rescues Faile or whether she finds a way to escape. I need to know if Elayne secures the Lion Throne of Andor. I need to know whether we see Loial the Ogier — my favorite character — ever again. I need to know if Rand retains his sanity. I’m curious about how he resolves his relationship quandries around Min, Elayne, and Aviendha. I also want to know whether plucky, lucky Mat Cauthon surfaces from under that pile of rubble.

March — April, 2015

Romanità

The city gave its name to the power of patience— Romanità . Romanità excludes emotion, hurry, doubt. Romanità waits, sees the moment and moves ruthlessly when the time is right. Romanità rests on an absolute conviction of ultimate success and arises from a single principle, Cunctando regitur mundus: Waiting, one conquers all.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell

It divides

Later that summer, as rain fell, such a moment shimmered and paused on the brink, and then began the ancient dance of numbers: two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty- two, and a new life took root and began to grow. And thus the generations past were joined to the unknowable future.

Probably the most beautiful description of conception I have ever read.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell

Visible and physical dependence

“You can see it, can’t you. Hasta’akala: to be made like sta’aka. To be made visibly and physically dependent on someone stronger. He offered us hasta’akala. He took me to the garden and showed me the ivy and I didn’t make the connection. I thought he was offering Marc and me his protection and hospitality. I thought I could trust him. He asked my consent and I gave it. And I thanked him.”

Father Sandoz willingly gives up his dignity.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

ACOSCoverBook seven of the Wheel of Time series under my belt, seven more to go. As usual, nothing really happens until the last 20% of the book. Jordan wastes words telling us all about setting and clothing descriptions for characters where it adds nothing to your understanding of them. (Detailed livery descriptions for nobles, their servants, and armies — almost all of whom are lesser, unimportant characters.) He constantly describes facial reactions to reveal plot. The telling is so rampant it’s tiresome at times.

What is interesting to read are the various customs of each nation; the Ebou Dari’s extreme reverence for Wise Women, for example. The gholam’s origin story is another. Loial, who, as an Ogier, is filthy with backstory potential) gets limited stage time in book seven.

While Jordan does a much better job weaving the disparate plot points together in book seven it’s the easy “outs” that irk me the most. (That, and 300 Aes Sedai characters that are impossible to keep straight. (Thank you Wheel of Time wiki!).

Lan Mandragoran appears out of nowhere “just in the nick of time” to save bossy the cow Nynaeve from Moghedien’s random attack in Ebou Dar. (Surprisingly, Nynaeve hasn’t yanked her braid right off her head, yet.)

The Wanderer (actually Moridin in disquise) who again, pops out of nowhere to save Rand from falling down a hole during the “climactic” battle scene with Sammael. We waited the entire book for this battle, and Sammael gets killed by Mashadar after a long, drawn-out chase sequence? Rather unsatisfying. It’s almost as though Jordan gave up. Equally frustrating? Nynaeve, Elayne, Aviendha and Mat are all still in Ebou Dar 855 pages later. Will they ever emancipate the Bowl of the Winds? (I sense, yes! this will happen. The reason? Book nine depicts snow in the cover art. The weather’s got to change at some point.)

Will Elayne ever take the throne of Andor? Will Mat ever escape from under the pile of rubble he’s currently trapped under? Is Sammael really dead? Will Nynaeve ever finish off Moghedien for good in an epic battle royale? Will we ever see Egwene, Perrin, Faile, and Loial again? Maybe book eight has some answers.

January – March 2015

Ru by Kim Thúy

RuCover3-187x300Ru is Kim Thúy’s time-shifting biographical novel about fleeing war-torn Vietnam in 1979 to start over in Granby, Québec.

While labels are reductive, names and nouns are a linguistic starting point we rely on to understand what it is we’re working with.

As a reader, I struggled with the book as a biographical novel. Which parts are true? Which bits are fiction? The fact that the line blurs, troubled me. I visited Hanoi, Vietnam for a short week, but of all my travels, it’s been my favorite trip. I guess — and my inability to digest this book as a biographical novel is not a criticism, simply my personal response — I’m eager to know more about a country I loved and want to return to from someone with first-hand experience far deeper than mine.

Even memoirs have hazy edges; memory is malleable, imperfect, and fallible, though a fictionalized biography seems to taunt you with the truth. This book is a series of short, detailed, vivid vignettes — scenes set before you like a delicious, carefully prepared full-course meal, but you’re left wondering if the crab cakes you’re eating are actually made of pollock, or something else entirely.

The definition of “ru” in French and Vietnamese as it appears in the beginning of the book gave me pause:

In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge — of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.

For me, “Ru” rings true in French as a river of tears, of blood, and money flows from re-education camps into Mirabel Airport in France as refugees flee Vietnam with all their worldly wealth (diamonds and gems) embedded in their teeth. I found dissonance in “ru” in Vietnamese as a lullaby, given the torture, expropriation, poverty, and depravity the book depicts.

These questions aside, Ru is a beautiful novel translated from French into English. It’s featured as one of the books in the 2015 Canada Reads competition. It’s worth your time.

February, 2015