The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI hadn’t intended to read The Sparrow so soon after my last read of it, but I ended up having to fill an emergency book-club slot and I wanted to make sure I had a winner of a book. Of course, shortly after I announced this as the next book, I started hearing horror stories all across the internet (by which I mean one horror story on a podcast) about someone else’s book club where no one liked The Sparrow.

Luckily that’s not actually possible and that person was clearly lying, as my second book club reading went just as fantastically as the first!

There’s just so much greatness in The Sparrow, starting with the chilling-on-a-re-read last line of the prologue — “They meant no harm.” Seriously, chills. Then there’s the competing Before and After plotlines that don’t seem like they can come together until they rush headlong into each other just exactly like Sandoz rushes headlong into Askama to start this whole narrative. And there’s the worldbuilding, which, in a present very close to the present of the story (2015 to the story’s 2019), seems oddly prescient about some things and very very happily completely wrong about others. Hooray for iPads and a lack of institutionalized slavery! (Though as one book clubber pointed out, not a lack of slavery in general.)

But I’ve talked about all that before (see link above), and I will talk your head off about it if you even tangentially mention this book in my presence. What was cool about reading the book this time was that Scott and I chose to listen to it on our road trip up to Cleveland, so we got to experience a very different re-read together. There was much pausing and discussing of the book while we drove, and it was really fun to see how we took parts of the book very differently.

And, of course, it was cool to hear the book. The narrator, David Colacci, was maybe not a master of accents, but he put on a good show, and I realized for the first time how ridiculously multicultural (still pretty white, but multicultural) the characters are. I mean, I knew there were Texans and Italians and Puerto Ricans in the book, but let’s be real, they all had Cleveland accents in my head. So it was neat to hear how they “really” sounded. Colacci also did a good job with tone and volume, putting a lot of emotional depth into Sandoz’s pain and Sofia’s reticence and the narration about everything awful that happens to everyone in this book. At first I was a little put off by this, because it can be really hard to hear those quiet parts while driving without losing an eardrum to a normal speaking voice, but since I already kind of knew what was happening it turned out pretty okay after all. I will definitely be seeking this narrator out for future audiobooks.

I will also keep recommending this book to everyone. I knew my first book club would love it because I know them pretty well, but I was really nervous about this second book club because the members have wildly varying ages and religions and viewpoints and I was worried that like two people would show up. But the ten of us who came all at least appreciated the book, and we had a great discussion about fate and belief and responsibility without anyone resorting to fisticuffs, and several people said they would be seeking out the sequel, so I’m glad to get more people on the MDR train.

Recommendation: Um, go read it, obviously. If you’ve only read it once, read it again.

Rating: 10/10, perpetually, always

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe last time I picked a book for my online book club, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time, and so when it finally came around to my turn again I decided to go with a foolproof selection — a book I’d read and loved and already foisted upon another group member, who also loved it. Co-member Mary says this is “cheating,” but I say it’s “not getting kicked out of the book club.”

It seems to have worked, as in fact all of the people who read it liked it, though we didn’t end up having terribly much time to actually discuss the book because of reasons. This is a shame because this book makes me want to talk about ALL THE THINGS.

Of course, as I said last time I read the book, a lot of what makes this story so interesting and wonderful is the way that Russell tells you things in stages — first you learn that Emilio’s hands are somehow no good, then you learn how they’re no good, then you learn why they’re no good — so I won’t spoil any of that here. It was really interesting on my second reading to see how Russell dances around certain subjects that become important later, some of which I missed the first time, but those reveals later were not nearly as exciting.

Another thing I noticed on my second reading was the stuff around the Jesuits in Space storyline; I didn’t remember going in how much world-building Russell does to create her version of 2019, which was 23 years away when the book was first published, 11 years away when I first read this book and only six years away now. The computing technology is surprisingly accurate, if awkwardly phrased in 90s speak, but there are some references to the fact that we’ve killed all the trees that make me very glad that we haven’t, though I guess we’ve still got six years. Russell, who lives in my beloved Cleveland, also hedges her bets by getting the Indians to the World Series, though of course they lose, because that is how Cleveland works.

Narrative-wise, I had trouble with the book last time because it spends a lot of time on some scenes I consider boring and absolutely none on others I am more interested in, and because the ending runs in front of you and slaps you right in the face when you think there should certainly be much more story left. I was still disappointed in that this time, especially regarding certain scenes where certain things happen to certain characters, but since I knew more of what was going on it was easier to see this as a function of the story being told by a reluctant narrator who wants to spend more time on the good things than on the horrible, awful things that happened to him. Seriously, poor Emilio.

Story-wise, I am still madly in love with this novel. I love that music sets off a space journey and that the Jesuits are way more organized than any government. I adore all of the humans brave enough to go to space and the Runa that they meet (though I wouldn’t want to live with them!). I appreciate if not enjoy all of the realistic consequences of this journey and of the human propensity to break the Prime Directive.

If you haven’t read this book, I really think you should, because it will make you think lots of thoughts and that is never a bad thing. Also Jesuits! In Space! You can’t go wrong.

Recommendation: For everyone, unless you are allergic to space priests, I guess, or very bad things happening to good people. There’s a lot of that.

Rating: 10/10

P.S. Apparently several years ago Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to The Sparrow, with the intent to have Pitt star as Emilio. Russell subsequently revoked the rights, and while I am sad not to have this fantastic book as a movie, I am very happy that I won’t have to worry about that casting.

Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell (2 February — 5 February)

Children of God is the follow-up to Russell’s The Sparrow, one of my favorite books of last year and all time. It picks up shortly after the last book left off, with Emilio Sandoz still recovering from what he believes God did to him and trying to reconcile that with his life on Earth, where forty years passed by while he was gone.

The Society of Jesuits is set on sending a second mission to Rakhat to try again, as it were, and attempt to open up trade agreements with the Jana’ata that will be mutually beneficial. The Father General wants Emilio to return to the planet, but Emilio, understandably, is only willing to train people to go in his stead. The Father General, ever wily, figures out some way to get Emilio on that ship.

Meanwhile, back on Rakhat, we find out that Emilio wasn’t the last human left on the planet after all, and also that that human seems to have helped engineer a Runa revolution, changing Runa and Juna’ata society for the better, but also for the worse.

The book is told in the back-and-forth style of The Sparrow, but I don’t think it worked as well as in the first novel. It felt a little too jarring to keep zooming between the planets and their timeframes that didn’t line up, and then also to go back and forth between the on-planet present and the on-planet future looking back. But it was still a good book, probably more so if you’ve read the first one.

Rating: 8/10
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The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (9 September − 13 September)

Read this book. Seriously.

The Sparrow mostly follows the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who, through coincidences (or God’s work?) ends up on a mission to a just-discovered planet near Alpha Centauri. The book follows two timelines, one starting when Sandoz returns to Earth, as the last surviving member of the crew, several years after some very embarrassing and horrifying information about Sandoz has made its own way back. He is to report on the mission to his superiors, but has to get over what happened to him before he can face the other priests.

The other timeline starts back at the beginning, with the events leading up to the discovery of the planet, then details the mission and what happens after the crew lands on Rakhat. This second timeline slowly fills in the large number of blanks left in the first, and helps make Sandoz’s alleged crimes understandable.

I don’t want to be too specific here, because a lot of what I loved about the book was the way Russell would bring in a fact without explanation, causing me to say, “What? When did that happen? Why?” and then a little while later the narrative would answer my question.

I loved this book a whole ridiculous bunch. It’s an interesting take on what would happen if we found life on another planet and went out to meet it, and if meeting that life would go just how we might expect it. I’m a big fan of the dual timeline, and Russell uses this to her great advantage.

The one thing I didn’t like terribly much is that the ending happens so fast − you spend a lot of time leisurely following the stories and then all of a sudden Russell is throwing in forced exposition in order to tie up the story. I would gladly have read another hundred pages (the book is about 400); the rushed ending was unnecessary and made the religious tie-ins at the end seem a bit trite.

Rating: 9.5/10