Well, today I read the Laughing Sutra and Lying Awake by Mark Salzman. Laughing Sutra was extremely entertaining and I enjoyed reading it very much; it was a pure adventure novel. However, Lying Awake reminded me more of The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon-- with a very different ending. Lying Awake recounts the story of a cloistered nun who experiences many visions of God, but increasing headaches cause her to visit the doctor. It turns out Sister John has epilepsy, which causes her to doubt her faith and her reasons for becoming a nun. She must decide if she needs the surgery (in which case she believes her deeply in tune connection with God may be cut off, at least as far as visions are concerned) or if she will risk everything and be able to rely simply on faith instead of her knowledge.
On the other hand, The Speed of Dark is about a man, namely Lou Arrendale, who has been autistic from birth and is able to read many patterns. It is a part of who he is and he can calculate math problems with ease and solve many complicated forms. He has a life of his own and enjoys fencing and competes in matches. He is shy, but likable and like Sister John he is cut off from the world (albeit not by choice) except for the few friends that he has made. The Speed of Dark is considered sci-fi because a cure for autism is discovered and he must decide if he will take it. His life will be irrevocably changed if he does, for good or for bad. Lou also decides to go through with his operation.
However, the end result is extremely different in both novels.
*SPOILERS BELOW* (Pay attention to this. Character growth is very important in both books, so if you even slightly want to read either novel, skip to the very end or the tension will be lost.)
Lou's life is changed, but he seems to be a completely different, more self-assured individual. He cannot understand the past self that he once was and cannot relate to any of the members of his fencing team. Nor can he read patterns. Is he better or worse? Elizabeth Moon seems to leave this open ended, but I believe she essentially claims that Lou and his handicap are intrinsically entwined, a part of how he grew as a whole. Of course, Elizabeth Moon herself has an autistic son, so of course she would want to pass on a similar sort of message-- was the autism really a handicap at all, or was society just not able to comprehend Lou's special abilities . . .
On the other hand, for Sister John, her epilepsy is a problem for her convent and she comes to see that being able to see visions of God and her spiritual "high" may bring about jealousy and conflict at worst. At best, the other nuns must learn to work around her constant headaches. It is not just a matter of staying close to God, but it becomes a matter of selfishness instead of simply a cross to bear. After Sister John's own surgery, she discovers that God has in a way answered her own prayer to know Him better. Her experiences weren't based on faith at all, and now He is testing her endurance. Before, she had the grace of complete reliance, and now she must struggle more, but it is still all a part of growing in God.
So I still liked Speed of Dark better than Lying Awake; Speed seemed to have more substance to it, and Elizabeth Moon gets bonus points because she very much understands what Lou was going through because of dealing with her own autistic son. However I doubt Mark Salzman has ever had epilepsy, and he his Buddhist, not Catholic; some of the things Sister John experiences have a very Buddhist nature in them that were rather invasive to me. Yet if one didn't care about such things I suppose it could just be seen as more lyrical/poetical type writing than anything else.
But both books are still very much the read. Actually, all three books. Laughing Sutra was excellent too . . . . .