Wednesday, November 25, 2009

People of the Book: A Novel People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A very interesting novel, that is both a historical novel and a current novel. It's about Hannah, an antique book expert. She is called to Bosnia to inspect a Haggadah (Jewish prayer book), to authenticate it. She finds a hair, a wine stain, a part of a butterfly wing and salt water stains as she inspects the book. How each of these items became part of the book is told in separate chapters, from the most recent to the very beginning (and before) of the book. These chapters are interspersed with Hannah's own life - her rocky relationship with her mother, her relationships, etc. At first, this part of the book wasn't that intriguing ("Ho, hum. Another mother/daughter story..."), but as the book progresses, we see more and more into their lives, and see how Hannah, herself, is one of the "People of the Book". As a lover of books (and not just their contents, but the physical *books*, and as someone interested in Jewish culture, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But you don't have to have those interests to enjoy it. If you simply enjoy historical novels, you'll enjoy this.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Sparrow

The Sparrow The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was a huge surprise for me. A friend had loaned it to me, along with several other books, and I was looking for books to read on my annual go-to-a-cabin-on-the-beach-and-read-and-sleep vacation, so I threw this one into my bag. The premise sounds intriguing - first contact of humans with an alien species, and the team sent to the planet is comprised of 4 Jesuit priests, a doctor, an engineer, an astronomer and an AI specialist. It was the Jesuit priest idea that piqued my interest - and I'm a sucker for "first contact" books, too.

So, I started reading, expecting an interesting, but normal, such story. Imagine my surprise and delight when I got that plus a whole lot more! This is not just a first contact sci-fi story - it's an exploration of God, faith, prayer, predistination and the problem of pain (as CS Lewis deals with in The Problem of Pain) disguised as science fiction.

The story is told in alternating chapters of the present (2059) and the past (several years earlier). We first meet the only surviving member of the team, Emilio Sandoz, who is emotionallly and physically broken. Between chapters of the Jesuits trying to help (and debrief) him, we get chapters introducing the characters and how the first contact happened and how the mission came about. So, you're immediately set to wondering about what happened, and how did Emilio get in such a state? As you read further and further, the feeling of dread really starts hanging over you. This is not necessarily an easy book to read, because of the story and the themes - it's not a "they lived happily ever after" kind of book! But, it has jumped to my list of top 10 books I've ever read!

I was utterly captivated by the book - the style of the writing, the construction of the book, and, of course, the overall theme: if God is a loving God, and we are "doing his will" why do HORRIBLE things happen to us? Did God allow it? Did God send it? Does God not care about the pain? These are questions I have struggled with my whole life. This book doesn't answer any questions, but it certainly presents the problem in a very powerful way. Don't get me wrong - this isn't some boring theological treatise - this is a rip-roaring sci-fi tale, with a VERY interesting and original alien planet, and can be enjoyed just for that. But, I think most readers will also be touched by the theme of the book, and will be left pondering some very heavy ideas...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day - "The Difference Engine"

Today, March 24, is Ada Lovelace Day. Who is Ada Lovelace, you say? She is generally attributed to be the first computer programmer, working with Charles Babbage on his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine (early mechanical computers) in the early 1800's. You can read more about her on Wikipedia: Being a computer programmer, and a woman, myself, Ada has always been something of an icon for me (along with Grace Hopper).

But this is a book blog, right? Yes! When I heard about ALD, and the effort to have bloggers worldwide recognize her, I took the opportunity to re-read a most interesting book The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This book is one of the first 'Steampunk' books - certainly one that brought the genre into the general public realm. The Difference Engine supposes that Babbage and Lovelace's work actually became viable and spawned 'the computer age' (including hackers - or 'clackers' as they're know in the novel), though not silicon/electronic computers, but computers made with gears that run on steam (hence, "steampunk"). Ada, herself, is a character in this book, which is why I thought it would be a good book to read in honor of this day.

I don't think this book is Gibson or Sterling's best work, but it's a really interesting 'alternate history' book, and they very realistically extrapolate as to the impact computers would have on society at that time. Though, I do think, at times, the authors were trying a bit too hard to be "clever", and the story tends to wander a bit. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about steampunk. (I don't think it's the best reference book about Ada, herself, but it is a good story, overall, and a good example of the genre.)