Tag Archives: goodreads

Jesuits in space: ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jesuits in space! That alone would be enough for me to want to read this (how is it that this is the second/third SF novel I’ve read this academic year that features Jesuits?). The Sparrow is the tale of what happens when SETI finally pays off, and a Jesuit with his non-Jes friends birth this idea, which is funded by the Society of Jesus, to go and make first contact with an alien species whose radio broadcasts from Alpha Centauri they had encountered.

Their goal is not evangelism like the Jesuits of old. Indeed, amongst the crew of this interstellar expedition are in-the-open agnostics besides a quietly agnostic Jesuit. However, like the Jesuits of old, their purpose is to engage on this expedition ad maiorem gloriam Dei — that very reason for which the Jesuits exist to this day. They are explorers — a linguist, an engineer, an astrophysicist, a botanist, a musician, a doctor, and so forth. To the greater glory of God, they set out to find what wonders his creation holds in store for them on a planet they learn to call Rakhat.

This is not, then, what some fear — a novel that’s out to convert the reader to Catholicism or something.

Russell tells the story from both ends, which I think pays off very well, sort of like the obsessive foreshadowing of Homeric poems and mediaeval romances.

This is certainly a novel about faith. And psychological horror. About doubt. And the destruction of faith. And about wonder and glory and love (human and divine) and pain and sorrow. It is about finding faith and then being put through the wringer.

I read the ePUB version, and there some problems with the Latin, with ablatives coming out where there should have been nominatives. Not sure if the fault was the software, the publisher, or Russell, but the first two seem more likely, given the people the author thanks in the acknowledgements at the end.

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The Quest of the Holy Grail – a spiritual, mediaeval romance

The Quest of the Holy GrailThe Quest of the Holy Grail by Anonymous

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading The Mystery of King Arthur, I was in the mood for more of the Matter of Britain, so I read this volume, one I’d received for Christmas from my brother Michael some years ago.

The Quest of the Holy Grail is excellent. Matarasso’s 20-page introduction is definitely worth the read — she gives enough information and context for one to enjoy the book, but it doesn’t feel weighed down or unbearable the way some introductions do. The key to understanding this text, as Matarasso observes, is that it is not simply a plain adventure (although there is a lot of that!). Instead, this is a spiritual text — but not properly allegorical. Rather, The Quest of the Holy Grail turns courtly love on his head, placing Christian perfection in its place.

Thus, Lancelot is taken from the heights and plunged to the depths where he must undergo penance for his full-on embrace of the worldly ideal of the knight and, especially, his full-on embrace of Queen Guenevere. Gawain, the second-greatest of Arthur’s knights, is ever on the outside in this quest, finding few adventures, and running afoul of everyone he meets — the sinner who says he’ll repent but then goes and accidentally kills a friend without remorse.

Besides the two sinners — one, a penitent, the other the kind who gets what he deserves — we have the three Grail Companions: Sir Galahad, Sir Perceval, and Sir Bors. The first two are virgins, the third a chaste penitent who once had relations with a woman but now lives in purity. If the Knights of the Round Table weren’t perpetually in their early 20s, I wonder if a faithful married man would have been able to find the Grail! Here, instead, we have the mediaeval ascetic ideal of virginity upheld as one of the greatest virtues a noble can have.

Galahad is, of course, the noblest and least sinful of the knights. He, Perceval, and Bors meet with various test and temptations, but — unlike Gawain, for example — fall into no sin. They are the model warriors; not only are they the best in a tournament, they rescue the weak and protect women; they resist sexual temptation; they live simply, eating only bread and water; they hear Mass and attend Vespers regularly; they heed the advice of the hermits, monks, and nuns they meet along the way.

Throughout the book the knights enact their own allegories, which is kind of weird but kind of fun. The meanings of the enacted allegories or allegorical dreams are unveiled to them by the various hermits and monks they meet. It seems most of England is populated by hermits and monks. Sometimes a castle. Nary a farmer in sight.

Finally, from various persons encountered by different knights as they quest, we learn throughout the book the story of the Grail and its guardians, from Joseph of Arimathea to King Pelles and Castle Corbenic.

The translation is written in a timeless English prose that, while it may feel archaic, moves with a speed and vivacity befitting the tale told herein. I highly recommend this book.

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Briefly: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Beautiful and DamnedThe Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In brief: I liked this book, but there was a period in the middle where I found Gloria in particular very tiresome. And by the end, I disliked both the main characters. If you want to read a story about the emptiness of life led by the vainglorious, selfish, and idle, this is the book for you. It is, however, like all of Fitzgerald’s work, exquisitely written and maintains verisimilitude throughout. That’s how you are kept reading even when you tire of the protagonists.

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Kafka’s alluring simplicity

The MetamorphosisThe Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the translation by Ian Johnston; this was the first book the entirety of which I read on my NOOK eReader, and it went well.

I came to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis expecting it to be more obviously philosophical or moody or existential or something. Thankfully, it’s not. In Johnston’s translation, at least, it is one of the most amazingly straightforward and matter-of-fact works of speculative fantasy I’ve met.

Kafka does not dwell upon how Gregor got into the plight of being a giant insect. It is simply the defining fact of the novella — and the great complication to be overcome. Through the different events that transpire because of Gregor’s condition, there is no extensive analysis or description. It is simply stated plainly.

And young Gregor Samsa’s psychology is also very matter-of-fact. The questions are simply what to do in order to survive. No seeking a solution, no speculation about the fate of the world. How to eat, how to sleep, how to keep from creeping out his family. A certain amount of guilt over no longer being able to provide for his family, I suppose.

There is a practicality to this story’s approach to the fantastic.

This straightforwardness of the novella is its appeal. It draws the reader in and leaves so much of the analysis and thinking up to him or her. It strikes me as stereotypically German (yes, I know that Kafka was a citizen of the Autro-Hungarian Empire from what is now the Czech Republic — but he is a great author in the German language which shows you how new and narrow our nation-states perhaps are) to be so practical, plain, and matter of fact.

Since it’s a novella, it’s quite short. I recommend it.

Now I plan to read China MiĆ©ville’s Embassytown, an implicit sequel to an alternate vision of Kafka.

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