The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here

 

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A Year in Books (2017)

This was a slightly strange reading year. A year where most of my fiction reads were “just for fun” and many of my nonfiction choices were informative rather than literary.

I read for entertainment, I read for understanding, and I read for spiritual insight — but only rarely did I read for literary merit. I did, however, finally add Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to my “books read” list. And though much of this year’s fiction will prove — is already proving — forgettable, I am hopeful that most of the year’s nonfiction will stick with me into the future.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

death in kenyaM.M. Kaye’s Death in Kenya. Yes, I loved this book because of the setting. Loved it because of how right it gets that setting. Like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, this is wonderfully evocative of a moment in British history that is no more. Of a world that ceased to be. And yes, that world is unwaveringly problematic. But I still loved the glimpse.

Runners up: Though I read (and enjoyed) several others in this category, none really survived the test of even months’ worth of time. The one that came closest was A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.

Best Audiobook

mindfulnessThich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Mindful Living: How to Bring Love, Compassion, and Inner Peace Into Your Daily Life. Many of my nonfiction reads this year were consumed via an audiobook format, and many were excellent, but this was excellent because it was audio. Not precisely a book, it was a recording of Thich Nhat Hanh teaching on meditation, peace, fulfillment, love, and the Kingdom of Heaven — and his wisdom, compassion, and humor are embodied in the sweet, soft rhythms of his voice.

Runner up: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly EverythingFascinating, mind-boggling, and so well read.

Best Fictionhomegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. A beautifully crafted narrative about history and identity and the interwoven shape of our lives.

Runners up: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (which reminds one of the glory and power of books) and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

Most Read Author

George R.R. Martin with five books — or, perhaps more significantly, nearly 5,000 pages.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin with three books and just barely 400 pages — for Le Guin is a master of brevity, a gift sorely underrated and rare.

rendezvousBest Sci-fi

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Mystery, wonder, awe, exploration, and discovery — everything great sci-fi should entail. Once again, Clarke does not disappoint.

Runners up: Le Guin’s City of Illusions and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes — which, let’s be honest, is definitely fantasy and not sci-fi. But whatev.

Best Non-fictionblue nights

Joan Didion’s Blue NightsThis was probably the best read of the year, regardless of genre. Certainly the most beautiful. A poignant reflection on children, aging, identity, loss, and love.

Runners up: Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk. Rainer Maria Wilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. All three are books to feed the soul.

Best Non-prose

This is totally cheating, because I only read one collection of poetry this year, but Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Drawn to the Light was so beautiful I have to include it here.

Book I Most Wish I Could Make You Read

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World and Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Taken together, these two books changed my perspective on how we should teach, learn, and live.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here.

A Year in Books (2016)

I realize that I am lagging terribly behind in updating anyone on my life.  Failing to post for half a year is a woeful state of affairs — and one that I hardly have an excuse for (especially since I was writing an average of 1,000 words daily for a few of those months). Regardless, it’s 2017, the U.S. has a new president, a new semester has begun, and it’s time to take stalk of the year’s reading.

Having read 44 books and 12,441 pages (which averages out to more than 1,000 pages a month — not quite sure how I pulled that off), I would say that 2016, when measured in reading, can be counted a success.  A success kickstarted by the first book of the year (which, at 795 pages, was also the longest): The Brothers Karamazov (a quiet Christmas in Budapest, it turns out, is just what a reader needs).

This was the year I crossed a few important must-reads off the list (The Brothers Karamazov, The Silmarillion, and Beloved, along with Eloise Montgomery’s Emily series, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and more), re-read a few favorites (mostly for the Inklings class I co-taught this past fall), and discovered, rather inexplicably, classic sci-fi (and what a discovery it was!).  All in all, not a bad year.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

night-trainElizabeth Peters’ Night Train to Memphis.  No, this is in no way as good as Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels.  However, it was delightful in its own right (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s dotted with Peabody references for those in the know).

Runners up: Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moorchild (which has been on my to-read list forever; she’s been a favorite author since I was in grade-school) and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (loaned and recommend by one of my students).

Best Nonfiction and Best Audiobook

becoming-wiseKrista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  As I wrote on Goodreads, one of the wisest, most hopeful, and most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  I highly recommend the audio version, which is peppered with excerpts from her podcast interviews. A brave and beautiful book.

Runners up (nonfiction): An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (a simple and beautiful reminder of the sacredness of our own lives, our own living) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (an AP Lang requirement, but thought-provoking and worth the read).

Runner up (audiobook): Brene Brown’s Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  I listened to many excellent audiobooks this year, but Brown’s voice, speaking her own words, ultimately makes this a cut above the rest.

silmarillionBest Fiction

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.  Hands down one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

Runner up: Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  A gentle, beautiful book about living well.

Most Read Author

blackLloyd Alexander, with 5.  His Chronicles of Prydain were the highlight of spring break.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin, with 4.  Her Annals of the Western Shore were the highlight of the fall.

placeBest Re-Read

Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion.  Almost a decade since my first read-through, and his books still burn.

Runner up: Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings.  The book that first introduced me to the Inklings as a community (rather than a disconnected handful of beloved writers).  It was, and is, love at first sight.

hyperionBest Sci-fi

As my most read genre this year, it seemed only fair to give this its own category.  My favorite single piece would have to be Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  Atmospheric, terrifying, and littered with literary references. Lovely (though I didn’t care for the sequel).

Runners up: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (which, as a collection of interconnected short stories, was not what I was expecting but was far more perfect) or anything by Arthur C. Clarke, whose work has yet to disappoint — specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually as good as it’s cracked up to be.

You can find a more complete list of my year’s reading here.