Book Review Times Two

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin

Mary Doria Russell
Mary Doria Russell c.1998
 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Madames Russell and Le Guin, you’ve both done it again. I find that I must reiterate how baffled I am that these two Crazy Greats escaped my attention for all the formative years of my life. What lasting lessons could I have learned from these two women through their extraordinary stories! Of course, much of their genius would have likely left my narrow, tender mind much disturbed. Now that I’ve left at least some of my childish ways of thinking behind me, these books taste like graduating from milk to feasts fit for kings.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven wanders the dark and twisty path of dreams, asking the generally horrifying question: What if your most vivid, overpowering dreams all came true? Not just for you, but for all the world? Worse, what if an arrogant scientist, certain of his own unfailing rationality and good will, gained control of those dreams?

George Orr stumbles through this nightmarish series of worlds and disparate narratives with a demeanor just placid enough to permit us our own perspectives, just morally centered enough to keep us wholly on his side. Lathe of Heaven felt like a feminine love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Man Who Was Thursday, misanthropic and humanistic, speculative and practical, hopeful and despondent all at once. It was a quick read, but a deep one. And yet another example of Le Guin’s peculiar and powerful craft.

Children of God, on the other hand, is a work of poetry and music and ancient religion, all woven together in the lives of children and soaked in blood. A sequel to the already classic masterpiece which was The Sparrow, Children of God has very possibly surpassed its predecessor in power and prose. Mary Russell strikes me as an author with the utmost respect for her character’s personalities and histories. Emilio Sandoz would never willingly return to the planet of Rakhat, the site where his faith was first buoyed, fed, then brutally eradicated. So what does Russell do? Spoiler alert! She beats, drugs, and kidnaps the poor bastard to force his return! Brutal? Yes. Dedicated to the integrity of the character? Absolutely.

Children of God worked to redeem the irreparable tragedies and violations of The Sparrow, using faith, war, forgiveness, but most of all Time to harvest what was sown. And was it all redeemed? Read it for yourself. Just be warned, Russell is merciless. She cuts like a surgeon to those secret doubts and bastions of silent hate you thought no one knew about but you. Her work is not to be entered into lightly.

As for you, Mary Russell, I am once again in your debt. Each time I read, I am changed by your work.

And to each of you crazy great women, master storytellers, bold and faithful to the art: I cannot wait to read the rest of what you’ve created. Every single book.

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

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In the age of the Gilead Regime, American society is restructured according fundamentalist, pseudo-Biblical law. Women cannot own property, cannot work outside the home, cannot choose their husbands or even choose not to marry at all. Women are vessels only, sacred and abused, venerated and reviled, valuable only if their wombs are viable and their spirits broken. This is the world in which an anonymous “handmaid” of the near future is set. Like thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of women across the country, she was seized from her former life, separated from her young daughter, conditioned through violence and indoctrination to submit, then placed in the home of an influential “Commander” and his wife for the sole purpose of producing a child. A Handmaid’s Tale is the story of her daily life, of her introspection, of the bruises inflicted on a young woman’s soul as it beats itself to death against the bars of its cage.

I have tried to read books by the Crazy Great Margaret Atwood before, giving up on all of them because of the jarring, despondent, acidic tone of her narrators. Perhaps because I listened to this book instead of reading it, and perhaps because it was read by the wonderful and versatile Claire Danes herself, I succeeded in finishing. Though I’ll give it four out of five stars, I can’t say I loved the book. I can’t argue with the quality and experience of the writing. I can’t deny the ingenuity of the world Atwood created or the piercingly effective pathos of the book. But unlike my experience with The Sparrow last week, this book left me empty instead of full. It left me a little less hopeful about people and society at large and it made me hate men, which is not the healthiest place for me to live.

I will say that there were a few shining moments of authenticity and insight that elicited my signature “humph” (not unlike the sound I imagine I’d make if I were kicked in the stomach). The narrator’s musings on nightfall, on ignorance, on fear, and on the female body… nothing short of brilliant. But, I look for hints of redemption and hope in every story, no matter how desperate or dark. And, try as I might, I just could not find those things here.

In fact, I found myself dwelling on one of the narrator’s mantras as I pushed through to the end:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

Book Review: The Sparrow

“Kinda spooky, ain’t it. Hell of a lot of coincidences. Like we say back home, when you find a turtle settin’ on top of a fencepost, you can be pretty damn sure he didn’t get there on his own.”

Russell, Mary Doria (2008-05-27). The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series) (pp. 121-122). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Father Emilio Sandoz of the Society of Jesus has never considered himself to be a mystic or a saint. His faith is not founded in a “feeling” about God, or even in any kind of love for Him. Sandoz was attracted to the centeredness, the morality of the faith as a mere boy, when he was rescued from the slums of La Perla by a Texan Jesuit priest with a penchant for swearing and an eye for diamonds in the rough.

So when first contact is made with an alien world in the neighboring galaxy of Alpha Centauri, and that first contact comes in the form of lovely, wistful, transcendent music, Father Sandoz is astounded and amused and intrigued. But when he and each of his closest friends turn out to have the precise skill sets required to make the journey out to this new world, he is shaken. And when, against all possible odds, Father Sandoz and those dearest to his heart land on that far away alien Garden of Eden just eighteen short months later, he is transported. For the first time, he feels, he has encountered and fallen in love with the Living God.

But crossing languages, cultures, and species is a treacherous business. As missionaries throughout the millennia of human history have learned, the cost of leading the vanguard of discovery can be very, very high. How will a fledgling faith hold up in the face of loss and suffering and despair? Can we love a God who takes away as much as He gives, who is neither simple, predictable, or safe?

Mary Doria Russell accomplished in her debut, award-winning novel what I thought was impossible in the modern age. She married the foremost theories of medicine and technology with one of the oldest and most rigidly structured religious faiths. She took atheist and Jesuit characters and treated each with the same honest affection, bound them together as a family unit, and then dissected them in a ruthless pursuit of literally “universal” truths. She did not shy away from a single charged, political question. She looked the reader in the face as she led us to an abyss we all recognize, but work very hard to ignore.

I have a new favorite book, folks. And I am challenged, once again, to expand my own view of what’s possible to achieve in fiction.