The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell


My review of The Sparrow, posted on SF Mistressworks.

Originally posted on SF Mistressworks:

The SparrowThe Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Shannon Turlington

It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of emotion I felt while reading this book. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and this book is unquestionably about religion and our relationship with God. I am a spiritual seeker, though, and I found this novel to be one of the most meaningful examinations of our purpose as humans that I have ever read. It is not an easy read, and it offers no easy answers. But despite its horrors – and some truly horrific things happen in this story – it is a beautiful, life-affirming read.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joy of reading The Sparrow lies in discovering it. Russell parcels out the story in bits and pieces, to prepare the reader for what’s coming. So, just a bare-bones summary…

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Books by women: A reading list

In a recent post, I discussed trying to read books written by women. This led me to consider which women authors I would recommend, and I came up with a list of books by women that I think are entertaining and enlightening reads. Of course, I am not the only person to have come up with such a list, and if you are so inclined, you can find 50, 100, or even 500 more books by women to fill up your “to read” shelf.

Here is my list (my absolute favorite books are starred and my favorite women authors are bolded):

  • Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
  • Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye; The Handmaid’s Tale*; Oryx and Crake*
  • Jane Austen: Emma; Persuasion; Pride and Prejudice*
  • Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre*
  • Octavia Butler: Lilith’s Brood*; Parable of the Sower*; Parable of the Talents
  • Kate Chopin: The Awakening
  • Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca*
  • Jean Hegland: Into the Forest
  • Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House*; The Sundial*; We Have Always Lived in the Castle*
  • P.D. James: The Children of Men*
  • Nancy Kress: Beggars in Spain
  • Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time
  • Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home*; The Dispossessed; The Lathe of Heaven; The Left Hand of Darkness*; The Unreal and the Real; The Word for World Is Forest
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird*
  • Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus*
  • Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories*
  • Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
  • E. Annie Proulx: The Shipping News
  • Mary Doria Russell: Children of God; The Sparrow*
  • Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night*
  • Sheri S. Tepper: Grass
  • Jo Walton: Among Others
  • Kate Wilhelm: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
  • Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog*
  • M.K. Wren: A Gift Upon the Shore*

How to consciously read books written by women…

Before I started journaling my reading, in 2001, I just read whatever caught my eye at the bookstore without any sort of plan whatsoever. Over the decade since I started journaling, I’ve gradually become more purposeful in my reading, and if I look back over my journals (now on LibraryThing), I can see a steady improvement in the books I choose to read reflected in higher ratings and fewer abandoned books. 

At the beginning of the year, I did an exercise where I identified my top 10 favorite books of all time. I noticed that 7 out of 10 books were written by women (and of the 3 on my list written by men, one of those men was gay), but in my general reading, I’m still reading 2 books by men for every 1 book by a woman, according to LibraryThing stats. I decided to get even more purposeful in my reading and read mostly women, choosing books that are similar to my top 7 favorite books/authors. I still have a lot of unplanned reads, but the deliberate planning has been helping me discover new-to-me authors and break out of my ruts. This month, for instance, I’m reading 5 sci-fi/fantasy books all by women I have never read before.

My goals to stretch even further would be to read more women of color and more authors from countries other than the US/Canada/Britain. I would also like to read more gay authors and more authors of color generally. As a former English major, I find that I have about had my fill of the white male voice, even though there are many white male authors whose books I enjoy. But I want to hear from some other voices and open up my world even more.

For further reading:

Mansplaining, “not all men,” “yes all women”…

Language, memes, all the ways we attempt to tell our own stories–these things fascinate me. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about feminism and social justice issues, and engaging in discussions about them. The language that is used is often a heated aspect of the discussion. Here is some reading I’ve been doing on memes like “mansplaining,” “not all men,” and the corollary, in the wake of the misogyny-fueled shooting rampage last week, “yes all women.”


Geek Feminism Wiki on ‘splaining (The Geek Feminism Wiki is overall a tremendously useful resource.)

What is splaining? And why should I care?

You may be a mansplainer if…

Here’s why women have turned the “not all men” objection into a meme.

Not all men: A brief history of every dude’s favorite argument.

Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism.

Not all men.

Normal violence in a murder spree.

Why the web needs #yesallwomen in a counterpoint to #notallmen.

Lilith’s Brood, Octavia E Butler


SF Mistressworks has kindly republished my review of Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler. Go check it out!

Originally posted on SF Mistressworks:

lillith Lilith’s Brood (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago), Octavia E Butler (1989)
Review by Shannon Turlington

Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels were first compiled into one volume in 1989, but that compilation is now out of print. As with Seed to Harvest, Grand Central Publishing has reissued the compilation in an attractive trade paperback to capture new readers. And I’m glad they did, because I probably wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.

When I finished Lilith’s Brood, I actually wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but I thought about it a great deal, which I think is a sign of a book worth reading. The underlying theme disturbed me, partly because I didn’t find much hope in it, partly because I found myself agreeing with the series’ assessment: that humankind is fated by our own biology to destroy ourselves.

Lilith’s Brood includes three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites

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Accidentally reading about reptiles…

srpsnakeI realized with the first two reads of the year, I have an accidental theme going on: reptiles in my fiction! With Swamplandia! it was alligators; then there is a snake in The Burn Palace. Our upcoming book club read is set in Texas, so I wonder if a lizard will figure into the plot.

That got me wondering how many of my past reads featured reptiles, so I did a quick search. Snakes are by far the most common reptiles to show up in my book reviews and summaries. Going back in time, I see there were significant snake scenes in:

As for alligators and crocodiles, there is only Swamplandia! that I can recall. There may have been a crocodile in The Poisonwood Bible.

There are quite significant cosmic turtles in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, from which I’ve read Small Gods, and in It and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. As for actual turtles, they don’t seem as common, although the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland certainly comes to mind.

I also can’t seem to find any books I’ve read with lizards in them, although there are dinosaurs of course in Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Would you be more or less likely to read a book with a snake in it? I’d rather meet one in fiction than in real life, that’s for sure!

Here’s a list of fictional reptiles from Wikipedia and a list of Reptiles in Fiction on LibraryThing, if you’d like to seek out even more reptiles in your fiction.

Less than perfect…

It has become the norm to blog about every teeny-tiny facet of daily life, from cooking to getting dressed to home organization to raising children. I think these blogs have set an unreasonable standard for daily living, though. If you follow enough of them, you start to think that everything must be absolutely perfect all the time. This is a pretty old article at Jezebel, but it gets at what I’m talking about, and also shows that this insidious behavior has been going on for far too long.

As I walk around my cluttered, slightly dirty house, eating cold leftovers out of the Tupperware container, I have to wonder whether perfect should really be the goal. Not every meal has to be a gourmet experience, just so it can be documented on Instagram. We don’t have to love absolutely every t-shirt in our closets or banish it to Goodwill, as some fashion or minimalists bloggers exhort us; sometimes we just need something to wear. Every crafty project I have found on Pinterest and tried with my kid has failed utterly, but when we wing it and do what we feel, we generally have a good time.

Let’s make 2014 the year of not being perfect. Not reaching the perfect weight. Not having the perfect house or the perfect wardrobe or perfect children. Not living the perfect life. And being okay with that. No…loving that.

Vintage vs. Penguin: On being seduced by book covers…

Who cares what it's about? It is a very pretty book.

Who cares what it’s about? It is a very pretty book.

I have been rearranging my books, necessitated by a large Christmas haul of mostly beloved classics. I hate to admit it, but I mostly organize my bookshelves based on aesthetics– books all the same height together, for instance, or a publisher’s similar designs together. In this latest rearranging, I noticed how many black and white and silver books I had, and how nicely they go together on the shelf. Then I went through my husband’s books and picked out some of his b&w books that looked interesting. If I read them and like them, I may steal them to fill out my shelf.

I’ve always really been attracted to Penguins, especially from the Penguin Classics line with their black covers. Now I’m starting to notice that Vintage has some very attractive books, also mostly in muted or neutral colors. I have no trouble passing on books once they’ve been read, but those pretty books, they earn their place on my limited shelf space.

I do most of my reading on Kindle, but I still love print books, mostly just love looking at them and browsing through them. I especially love minimalist covers or anything that looks pulpy and vintage. What do you look for in a book cover?

Book cover: Nocturnes | Knopf Doubleday.

Blank slate…

I find myself wishing sometimes I could start all over again with a blank slate. Just wipe everything out and start anew.

I don’t mean my entire life, of course (or I should say, I rarely mean that). I have to believe that many people have had one moment or two when they wished they could just wipe the slate clean. It’s that fantasy of disappearing, picking a new name, starting an entirely new career as international spy or landscape artist or bookseller. Most of us don’t act on it, of course, and the moment passes.

More often, though, I look around myself and wish I could start again. Often it’s little things, such as wiping out all of my online identities, or redoing my house decor or wardrobe from scratch. Less often, I wonder what if… Pursue an entirely different career? Sell everything and move the family to the South of France?

These moments pass as well. It’s fun to fantasize, but in the end, it seems like too much work.

Whenever I get a new notebook, I feel a sense of satisfaction, starting with a fresh, clean page. The possibilities are endless. I can do anything with this fresh start. Once I start to write in the notebook, the satisfaction gradually fades into discontent. And then comes the inevitable moment when I want to throw the notebook in the trash, go buy a pretty new one, and start all over.

Well, it’s certainly less drastic to trash a notebook than to trash a whole life.