Julia and Valentina, twenty-year-old American twins with a life-consuming attachment to one another, learn they have inherited the London flat of their aunt, Elspeth Noblin, after Elspeth dies from cancer. The girls have never met their aunt and Elspeth has banned the girls’ father and mother (her identical twin) from ever stepping foot in the apartment, but Julia is convinced this is the adventure the girls have been waiting for and drags Valentine, the much more cautious and quiet of the two, across the Atlantic to live in their aunt’s flat near Highgate Cemetery in London.

Once in London, the girls meet their aunt’s former neighbors: Martin, a man suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife who leaves him for a life apart in Amsterdam; and Robert, the former lover of Elspeth and tour guide in the cemetery. Julia grows close to Martin and becomes determined to “fix” him lying that the OCD medication she gives him is simply a daily vitamin while Valentina begins to fall in love with Robert as she struggles to extricate herself from her sister’s crippling embrace. Valentina longs to attend college or go to design school or do something with her life, but Julia finds such activities mundane and cannot imagine life without her sister by her side. (There is a long soliloquy where Julia says the girls are virgins because they cannot be apart from each other long enough to have sex.)

But the former resident of the flat has not vacated the premises, and Elspeth’s ghost haunts the apartment communicating with the twins, destroying their television by inserting herself into the unit, and detaching the soul of the kitten the twins find from its body. (Yes, really.) Desperate to escape from her sister, Valentina hatches a plan for Elspeth to detach herself from her body in order to set her free opening the door for her parents to finally step into the apartment and the separation of Elspeth and her twin sister over twenty years ago to finally be explained.

The moment I truly sat up and took notice of this book was when Elspeth accused Edwina of stealing her life in a letter sent to Edwina right after her sister’s passing. That ruptured relationship was touched upon during the rest of the novel but was never fully explained until the end when things had long past taken a turn into the bizarre and characters who never seemed to matter before take a central focus in the conclusion of the novel.

The story builds in a fascinating tale intertwining the stories of the different characters and exploring the parallels in the problems dominating their lives and, of course, the backstory into how the original twins became separated and allowed an unspoken, unexplained to keep them apart forever. But the logic of the decisions they make later on in the story did not jive with me; it seemed incompatible with the characters I had begun to know. I tried to accept the supernatural nature of the book and the lack of rules, but the blending of the present and the supernatural needed more structure for me to understand how the characters could so easily adapt to the way bodies and souls are traded between the characters.

Niffenegger’s ability to create intimate relationships and scenes is preserved in this novel, which is why I’m glad I pulled it off the shelf at the library, and I enjoyed Bianca Amato’s narration — her pace and even her voice were perfect for the novel. But I found myself reaching the end of the last CD and marveling over how quickly Niffenegger was attempting to wrap the story up and how little explanation she decided to supply in the end. Too many characters feel by the wayside; too many questions remained.

Book Mentioned:

  • Niffenegger, Audrey. Her Fearful Symmetry. Read by Bianca Amato. New York: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009. Audiobook. 13 hours, 44 minutes. ISBN: 9780743599306. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Simon & Schuster Audio. Retrieved: September 16, 2014.

My first reaction upon finishing Gellman’s book on the Cheney vice presidency was to speculate on how embarrassed those who served in the Bush Administration would be at the description of events presented in this book. Memos, emails, and memorandums were forwarded onto the Office of the Vice President (OVP) for years without the knowledge of staffers, policy makers, and even cabinet secretaries, and Cheney served as the gatekeeper to the president selecting (or suggesting) options before the presentation to the president thus limiting the choices or throwing his weight behind one so the others were never fully considered.

He blocked access to the president insisting President Bush’s time not be wasted or, in one very egregious case, told the president the Justice Department was refusing to sign off on his secret domestic surveillance program as constitutional at the last minute after they had been fighting with Cheney and President Bush’s counsel over the matter for almost a year. Nearly the entire top echelon of the staff at the Justice Department had written resignation letters preparing to leave, which multiple interviewees in the book said would have cost President Bush his re-election in 2004, and would have if one of them had not discovered the president had no idea what was going on.

It is chilling to read about how cold and calculating Cheney was about amassing power, particularly after he was so critical of Vice President Dan Qualyle for using executive power held by the president during the First Gulf War. The juxtaposition between this and Cheney giving the order to shoot down any non-communicative commercial airliner on September 11, 2001 is especially alarming. However, as Gellman explains, some of Cheney’s ability to amass power was due to the rules set forth by previous presidents and much of it was due to his own view of the Constitution and executive power.

On the former point, President Clinton had rewritten the role of the OVP to give the Vice President the power to set and regulate environmental policy due to Al Gore’s commitment to climate change. Cheney used this rewrite to change environmental policy for the benefit of the oil and gas industry from which he once worked in: Yellowstone National Park was delisted so a coal plant could be built near the park’s borders which, thankfully, never occurred; the administration’s policy on climate change became that science was too complicated and not in agreement on the cause; and the listing of a species of fish on the Endangered Species List was muddled by special interest science in order to secure the votes of farmers at the detriment of the fish, the California salmon industry, and Native American tribes who have rights to water that supersede anyone else.

On the later point, Cheney believes the executive branch (the Office of the President and OVP) supersedes the power of both the legislature and the executive branch meaning the president is not beholden to either branch, and he understands the president to be the sole interpreter of the law. If the president finds his actions to be legal, then neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has the right to tell him otherwise. Bush’s illegal domestic spying program continued for nearly three years after the events of September 11, 2001 before certain members of Congress were notified and that only occurred because the Justice Department was threatening to walk and whistleblower on the whole program.

Because Cheney and, therefore, Bush saw the president as the sole interpreter of the law, terrorism suspects were denied habeas corpus and tortured at Guantanamo, Cheney refused to submit to inquiries from Congress or the Justice Department, and neither believed they had to ask Congress for the right to go to war in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Needless to say, this is not in line with the checks and balance of power between the three branches of federal government I have been taught in every single U.S. history, government, or civics course I have taken in my eighteen years of formal education in this country.

I did listen to Gellman’s book on audio, and I was apprehensive about doing so because with nonfiction books on particularly controversial topics I like to see and, occasionally, check extensive footnotes. But I could not get my hands on a print version before my book club meeting. This might be one of the few nonfiction books where an audiobook is effective because Gellman relies upon extensive interviews rather than printed materials to constructive his narrative and, therefore, I did not miss referencing footnotes or a bibliography. The narrator, Brian Keith Lewis, also does a great job of differentiating between the voices of the different interviewees; he had President Bush’s slight twang and slower speech pattern down pat.

Book Mentioned:

  • Gellman, Barton. Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Read by Brian Keith Lewis. New York: Penguin Audio, 2008. Audiobook. 13 hours, 42 minutes. ISBN: 9780143143581. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Penguin Audio. Retrieved: September 16, 2014.

I read twenty-five pages of The Sparrow and then nominated the book as a possible selection for my book club’s October meeting. Yes, it really is that good and if I had been fighting a cold, I probably would have stayed up all night to read the whole thing in one sitting.

I went into reading this book knowing nothing about the topic or the content, and I think the best summary actually comes from the prologue to the book (quoted below). By the end of the first half of the book, the group of friends have landed on the newly discovered planet of Rakhat and begun to try the flora and fauna in the search of food.

“The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuit have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” (pg. 3)

The book switches back and forth between the past and present so the only survivor of the journey, Father Emilio Sandoz, has returned to Earth near death after being found maimed in a brothel in Rakhat and unable – or, unwilling – to tell investigators from the United Nations and the Vatican what happened during their missions. There is also great speculation as to what happened to the group who followed Emilio, Anne, George, D.W., Sophia, Alan, and Jimmy to Rakhat but, so far, there have been few clues to either mystery.The excitement surrounding Trish’s announcement of the readalong and the number of people calling this book their favorite in the comments made it impossible for me to resist joining in. It would be hard to say I didn’t have high expectations because of those comments, but so far the book has met them and I’ve really enjoyed the first half of the book.

I particularly like how Russell switches the narrative back and forth between the past (the year 2019) and the present (2059-2060). It took me some time to become accustomed to the style, but Russell does a wonderful job of introducing tidbits of information, which adds to the intriguing of the story, without randomly dropping new characters that have not been previously introduced into the “past” narrative.

The five main characters of the book – Emilio, Anne, George, Jimmy, and Sophia – constitute the core friendship and I like each of them for each entirely different reasons. Sophia and Emilio, though, are the most intriguing characters to me because both of them are grappling with their pasts and their religious views. They along with Jimmy are the “intellectuals” of the bunch, although I would not discount the intelligence of either Anne or George, and I enjoy the dynamic of how society tries to abuse their intellect and in some way pits Sophia and Emilio against one another.

“You know what? I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they’re religious. I do what I do,’ Anne said, biting off each word. ‘without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently, thank you very much.” (pg. 110)

I also like the balance Anne, George, and their relationship brings to the group because both Emilio and Sophia lost their family units at a young age and had to find an alternative means of survival. While Anne and George didn’t experience the same loss, they discovered after several years of marriage that they are unable to have children and that loss appears to make them more willing to open their doors and accept Emilio, Sophia, and Jimmy into their family.

“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 questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.” (pg. 201)

I was not expecting religion to be such a large aspect of the novel, and the interview with Russell I found tucked into the pages of this book by a previous borrower from the library stated that she was in the process of bringing religion back into her life while writing this book. She was raised Catholic but eventually converted to Judaism. Both religions take a central focus in her book and she covers a range of relationships to both religions from serving as a priest and taking a vow of celibacy to internalizing the history of a religion without continuously practicing to appearing to have no relationship to religion whatsoever.

Yet in no way is Russell preachy or suggestive about how religion should play a role in the life of her readers. She makes it clear why adoption of religion or certain aspects of Catholicism work for each of the characters and allows the characters to debate those aspects about themselves and others. It is a very refreshing take on religion in a fictional novel and I, for one, cannot wait to read more and finally solve the mystery of what happened on Rakhat.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard, 1996. Print. 408 pgs. ISBN: 0679451501. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Villard. Retrieved: September 15, 2014.

The Sparrow + Trish's Bookmark

Recuperating | I was hit by a car door while riding my bike a little over two weeks ago and was pinballed into another car before coming to a stop. I was very fortunate in that I did not break a bone nor did I hit my head, but I spent all night in the ER waiting to be seen and received several lacerations and two very large contusions that made it difficult to walk, sit, or stand. I also managed to catch a cold less than a week later so I haven’t been doing anything after work other than reading and sleeping for ten plus hours the past two weeks. I was able to get back on my bike this past Wednesday and go for a short ride, although it was nerve-wracking to ride right past the spot where I was hit, and I’m enjoying my walks to work again now that they’re pain free.

Reading | I reached the halfway point in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell last night and will be posting thoughts on the first part tomorrow for the readalong hosted by Trish of Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity. Trish was also kind enough to send me the beautiful bookmark photographed above, which I used to mark my place on the few occasions where I actually put the book down. I’m also listening to Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffennegger on audiobook and am about sixty-five percent of the way through. I had no idea the book was actually a ghost story, but it’s been a good selection as the days turn colder and October comes closer and closer.

Discovering | Speaking of audiobooks, you might have seen a sudden rise in the number of audiobooks reviewed. I utilized audiobooks occasionally for school work and textbooks in the past yet I’ve recently discovered audiobooks are a great alternative to listening to music at work. All of my colleagues listen to music because the structure of our office spaces allows you to hear every cough, pen drop, and phone call and it can be rather distracting. But I find music starts to get on my nerves after a period of time, especially when Pandora won’t let me skip one more song. I can’t listen to audiobooks all the time due to the concentration they require, but they are perfect for the days when I am manually transcribing PDF reports into Excel.

Planning | Once I finish Her Fearful Symmetry, I plan to start listening to 1984 by George Orwell, which is the very first book on my list for the Classics Club. I also plan to start reading a nonfiction book but cannot seem to decide between the seven I currently have checked out from the library.

Borrowing | I currently have twenty-seven books checked out from the library plus three cookbooks and two DVDs. I think I’ve discovered the downside to being within walking distance of the library – I’m constantly deciding to pop over during my lunch break to return a book or pick up one from the hold shelf only to return to my office with five or six in hand.

Watching | I rewatched the first season of “Little House on the Prairie” and watched the episodes from seasons six and seven where Almanzo and Laura met and marry. Otherwise, the television has remained off. I’m sure that will change with my favorite shows returning later this month and with the documentary on the Roosevelts starting tonight on PBS.

Blogging | I have two reviews to write up and my thoughts on the first part of The Sparrow to finish for tomorrow. I was going to do a Library Loot post, but I’m feeling a bit lazy about assembling all thirty titles into one post.

Anticipating | I haven’t seen my brother since we were both home in June and my dad since I moved away in July so I’m eagerly anticipating their visit next weekend. We’ll be visiting two national parks and seeing the Red Sox play at Fenway (a first for my dad and brother!), and I have Monday off from work so all the more reason to be exicted.

The Sunday Salon:

The Sunday Salon.com The Sunday Salon encourages bloggers to get together –at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones– every Sunday and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Salon participants are encouraged to blog about their time spent reading, pages read, information about current reading, discuss a reaction to a book, state what they plan to read the following week, or make suggestions for a group read.

Photograph © Ardent Reader. Taken: September 14, 2014.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (the first ever awarded to a woman), Wharton’s novel follows a young lawyer, Newland Archer, as he moves about the elitist social circle of New York City and prepares to marry May Welland. Before Newland and May’s engagement is announced as the triumph it is, Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, returns to Manhattan introducing scandal to their circle for Ellen has separated from her abusive husband. Ellen’s disillusionment with the society in which she, Newland, and May were raised begins to trouble Newland, and he finds attraction to Ellen growing even as society champions Newland and May’s marriage as the pinnacle of good breeding and fortune.

Society – its conformity, ritual, and rules – is the main character of this novel and Wharton’s presentation of society rather than the characters of Newland, May, or Ellen is the thought-provoking aspect of this novel. Without society’s rigid structure, Newland would not worry about upsetting the status quo by following his heart, May would not entrap (for lack of a better word) her husband consigning both her and their children to life filled with resentment, and Ellen would not consider trading away separation from her abusive husband as the lesser of two evils. Without society’s rigid structure, the action of the novel might be less subtle and the details not so rich.

The manipulation of society’s rigid structure by Ellen, May, and Newland to meet their individual goals twists the novel into an entirely different interpretation. At a cursory read, the novel seems to be arguing against the constraints put upon people by society. Yet, as I pondered the characters and their scant actions, the novel also demonstrates the resourcefulness and meanness (for lack of a better work) people develop and internalize when consigned to such situations. May is presented as the villain or, at the very least, culpable in Ellen and Newland’s unhappiness due to her gentle (read: stupid) nature. Yet May sees her marriage to Newland for what it is – a means for entrance into the highest echelon of society – and carves out a modicum of control in order to keep that together. She plays the few cards she has and wins, at least in society’s view.

Unfortunately, the intense focus to details rather than action works against the novel from an audiobook standpoint. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration to catch all the details, to understand exactly why Newland is so resign in the face of so much desperation, and I was forever missing what originally appeared to be minute details forcing me the rewind again and again. The narrator, Lorna Raver, was also very easy to tune out – whether this is due to the intonation of her voice or the structure of the novel, I cannot ascertain. Oh, how I wish I had read rather than listened to this novel so as not to taint my appreciation.

Book Mentioned:

  • Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Read by Lorna Raver. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2008. Audiobook. 11 hours, 46 minutes. ISBN: 9781433251405. Source: Library.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © Blackstone Audio. Retrieved: September 11, 2014.
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