What I’m Reading: Sparrows, Woodpeckers, and Sherlock

In November, I didn’t quite get to four books.  I barely made it to three.  I don’t even know what I was doing that prevented me from reading.  Pure laziness, probably.  But those three books were pretty amazing, and because I like to write more than a sentence about each book, here’s some short reviews about my November books.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) : There have been only a few times in my life where I have been broken by a book, impacted beyond the point of tears or even words.  I believe that happened when I read The Giver for the first time in elementary school.  This year, it happened twice.  The first time was when I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  And again when I read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

The Sparrow has been on my “to read” list, because it seemed science fiction-y, which I’m totally into, but it also seemed to have heart and soul, because folks I know who read it were being profoundly moved.  It took me a while, but I finally picked it up.

The highest compliment I can give it is this: it’s devastating in the best possible way.  The first chapters of the novel are completely confusing; all you can basically gather is that the story is set in the future, a bunch of Jesuits are at the center of the plot, and this man – Sandoz – has just returned from space, the lone survivor of a team sent to explore a planet outside of our solar system.  This man is damaged beyond belief: physically, mentally, and mostly spiritually.  He is a broken and sick man who has lost his faith in everything, including the God he once served.  Allegations come out: prostitution, murder.  And still he does not explain.

Then the flashbacks start and we meet Sandoz and his friends, an incredibly complex group of characters who live and breathe like real people, with doubts and personalities and beliefs.  They are some of the most well-rounded characters I have ever had the privilege to meet in fiction.  You like them, even while cursing that affection because you know what is going to happen.  It says on the back of the book.  They all die.  All of them except for Sandoz.

It’s not completely a science fiction novel, not at its core.  It’s a treatise on morality and ethics.  It’s about faith and doubt, love and hatred.  It’s about moral code and engaging a foreign culture and being brave.  But mostly, to me, it was about experiencing God in a real and tangible way, and balancing that with the moment when God seems to turn his back on you and throw you to the wolves.  How can you hold both experiences of God in your hands, the transcendent and infinitely radiant Divine Being and the vicious and horrific absence of that transcendence and radiance?

It just kills me.

Russell is a wonderfully skilled writer.  Somehow she knows how to not overwhelm the reader.  I rarely felt overwhelmed with  too much technological detail, or too long of philosophy passages, or too much graphic content.  She knows how to make you care and how to break your heart just enough that you don’t abandon the story because it’s too painful.  In the worst moments, Russell gives you respite.  It is a masterful novel that I highly recommend if you want all that you believe about the universe and the God that holds it to be challenged in a respectful way.

Beautiful.  I bought my own copy of it just a few days ago, because I knew I needed to read it again.  Maybe in a few months – I’m not ready to go through that journey again.

Where Things Come Back (John Corey Whaley)I’m a bit old for teenaged fiction, says the 24 year old who recently devoured the Hunger Games.  That said…

Where Things Come Back is an excellent novel.  For anyone, teens or otherwise.  It’s a story about a bird, a woodpecker thought to be extinct.  And it’s a story about a missing teenage brother.  And a small town that needs something to hold onto.  But mostly it’s about a young man who is trying to figure out life in the midst of madness.  Because really, aren’t we all?

I was impressed with this debut of Whaley, and not just because the author is adorable in real life (yeah, I saw him in real life, and yeah, I just name-dropped).  He writes like teenagers think – a mile a minute, jumping from subject to subject, memories arising out of the smallest trigger.  His protagonist, Cullen, is creative, and so there are segments of the novel made up of dreams and imagining .  Cullen is a writer who doesn’t write anything but book titles, and those become an intriguing way of summing up sections, reminding the reader of character emotions, or giving the reader the main point.  Whaley also uses interesting tactics to take us out of the action, prop us up on a hill as we watch, along with Cullen, emotionally distant.  Cullen (and Whaley) deals with a difficult subject in the way a real life teenager would: sarcasm, distance, and uncertainty.  The story is complex; besides just following Cullen and his distress over the disappearance of his brother, there’s sections about religion and obsession and this “damn woodpecker” that seems to have risen from the dead.  Whaley brings it all together at the end in a surprising way.

People all over the place are raving about Whaley’s novel, including the National Book Foundation naming him as a Top 5 Under 35 Author.  I hate to jump on the bandwagon, so I’ll just shrug and say it was a’ight.  But no, actually, it was pretty good.  Check it out.  Whaley’s going to continue to do some great things.  Did I mention that he’s adorable? (For proof, follow him on Twitter: @corey_whaley)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) : I don’t know how Arthur Conan Doyle thought he was going to get away with killing off the world’s most famous detective.  I know that he was tired of writing for Holmes, that he was prouder of his historical novels that were never quite as popular with the public.  But something’s got to pay the bills, so he brought his famous character back and kept writing for the fellow, for which I am very glad.  I am quite attached to that silly fictional antisocial genius, and Holmes has some good, though lesser known, cases in this book.  Watson comes back to live with Holmes, because his wife dies (I think), and they carry on as before, saving the prestige of the nation’s upper-crust, fighting for justice for the lower-class, saving ladies from fainting.  Some gory deaths in this book, which are a laugh.  Also, in related news, I may name my first dog (if I ever get one) Stanley Hopkins.

So.  Enough about me.  What have you been reading?

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3 thoughts on “What I’m Reading: Sparrows, Woodpeckers, and Sherlock

  1. The Giver is the next play I am stage managing. One of my face books ever. Have you ever read The Outsiders by SE Hinton? That’s the book I remember breaking me.

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