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

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

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

Tell by Frances Itani

francesitani_tell This is the second Frances Itani book I’ve read this year. Set in Deseronto, Ontario just after the First World War, Tell takes us into the lives of side characters from Deafening. Maggie and Am, (Grania’s aunt and uncle) and Tress and Kenan (Grania’s older sister and her war-damaged husband) take centre-stage in this novel.

Tell is the story of two tattered marriages, one just starting and one many years old. The epigraph is especially prescient:

But isn’t that why we fall in love anyway, to be able to say the secret, dangerous words that are in our heads? To name each other with them in the dark? –Anthem, by Helen Humphreys

Two couples, both unmoored, are forced apart by different types of horror and helplessness: the horror of the First World War and catastrophic injury; the helplessness of watching your two children die horrible, slow deaths from diphtheria, isolated from medical help on the farm in the pit of a Canadian winter.

Tell is a novel of loss. It’s about our secret selves — the parts of ourselves we keep hidden from our spouse — that one person who is supposed to understand, and to love us, regardless; that person to whom we’re supposed to be able to “say the secret, dangerous words that are in our heads.” It’s about the relentless silences, shame, and grief that eat away at us over the years. The pain eventually gnaws its way out — leaving a messy, bloody hole that can only then begin to heal.

But pain was pain. One person’s and the next person’s and the next. One kind of pain was no more weighty than another, surely. Where the pain took place, the map of it, made not a speck of difference.

This is a book worthy of a re-read, and worth your time.

January and February, 2015

Deafening by Frances Itani

deafening-cover Proceed with caution: here be spoilers.

Deafening is a beautiful and poignant novel set in Deseronto, Ontario, Canada and in the trenches during the First World War. The novel tells the story of Grania O’Neil, a woman who lost her hearing to scarlet fever as a five-year-old.

This book explores “death” in distinct forms; from the death of language in illiteracy, the death of potential in marginalization, to mortal peril from the Spanish Flu and the First World War.

Mamo, Grania’s maternal grandmother and steadfast champion, sees Grania’s full potential and helps her achieve it. Grania recovers language as she and Mamo work through painstaking one-to-one lessons from The Sunday Book. It is Mamo who argues for Grania’s education, urging her parents to send her away to the nearby School for the Deaf.

Mamo’s boundless love is not without its costs: once students at the School for the Deaf enter in September, they’re forbidden from seeing family members until the following June and Grania and Mamo are deprived of one another through the long school year. Later in the novel, Mamo sacrifices herself, refusing to allow anyone else into Grania’s sickroom when Spanish Flu strikes. In nursing Grania back to health, Mamo catches the flu and falls victim to the pandemic. It is the scenes with Mamo and Grania, and Grania after Mamo’s death that are among the most poignant in the book.

This book shook me out of my own comfy, peaceful reality. Grania marries Jim and he promptly enlists and heads off to serve Mother Britain in the First World War. Jim is gone for three years. Three. Years. The newlyweds’ relationship survives off a brave hope and intermittent letters. I can’t possibly imagine a world where my husband would be drawn off to war for three years. This separation, isolation, abject horror, and sacrifice for someone else’s cause is entirely foreign to me. As the war continues, casualties mount, “the boys” who do return do not come back whole; they’re either maimed or scarred in body, mind, and soul. As Grania observes, no one remains unaffected:

“Everyone has lost something in this war, she thought. We have waited so long, and we have all lost something.”

This was a book I enjoyed much more on the second read. With full understanding of the plot, the second read reveals even greater depth in the connection between Grania and Mamo as we truly learn what and where they go and do when things get bad, a form of release and a coping mechanism Grania eventually reveals to her sister Tress in a bid to help heal her war-damaged husband Keenan.

Deafening is worth your time.

December 2014 — January, 2015

The Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

WoT06_LordOfChaos Lord of Chaos is book six of The Wheel of Time series. Mired in bloviated description, it plods for 986 pages only to end in a rushed battle scene and a confusing epilogue that begs more questions than it answers. Is Demandred disguised as Halima? Or, was it really Demandred disguised as Moghedien the entire book? Research reveals that no, Halima is not Demandred in disguise, despite the fact that she’s the only female character in six thousand pages to channel saidin, the male source of the One Power. It’s not nice to pull fast ones on your readers, Robert Jordan.

The book spends a lot of focus on Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve, yet strangely their storyline peters out in Ebou Dar as they search for a mysterious, but cleverly hidden ter’angreal thought to help control the weather.

The oddest thing in this book was the ceremony held as Egwene gets raised to Amyrlin. This series has been almost puritanical with only blushing, prudish references to nudity and sex, yet Jordan creates a scene in which all sitters, along with Amyrlin candidate Egwene, bare their breasts, declaring, “I am a woman” to prove that they’re female.

Mat Cauthon remains an insufferable misogynist who thinks women are all disingenuous schemers who wouldn’t last a day on their own if it weren’t for his protection.

Perrin and Faile, a pair who had been interesting characters in book five, seem wooden and flat. Faile’s ever-present jealousy and Perrin’s inability to communicate with his wife in any simple way became tiresome in their few scenes.

Thankfully, Loial is back, though sadly ignored, plot-wise for 90% of the book.

Despite the scrambled plot lines, the tedious repetition, and dozens of meaningless characters, I still want to know what happens to our crazy kids from the Two Rivers and Elayne, the daughter-heir of Andor. I can only hope that the characters deepen in upcoming volumes and that the writing somehow tightens. This book took me a few months to read, not just because of the flagging plot, I had to start reading other books to give myself a break from The Wheel of Time. On to book seven, albeit slowly.

October 2014 — January, 2015