Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Sparrow (1996), Mary Doria Russell

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 2 Pierogies

Review: I wasn't going to review this book. My feelings were too mixed, too complicated and I had no idea how to rate it. I was going to rate it "unrate-able" but after sleeping on it I think I can tackle this review now.

The premise of The Sparrow is spectacular, and I had not been so excited to read a book in a long time. Furthermore, book reviewers I trust and generally agree with LOVE this book. The story is told via two distinct timelines...

In 2019, a radio telescope in Puerto Rico picks up a broadcast of beautiful, hymn-like singing from a planet in a nearby solar-system. While the U.N. dithers about how to proceed for years the well-funded Catholic church secretly sends its own mission to the planet, called Rakhat. The mission is manned by an eight person crew, 4 Jesuit priests (all highly educated and experts in relevant fields) and 4 expert civilians. It is a rather annoying plot device that the civilians and priests are already a rag-tag group of friends who happen to have the perfect skill set for such a mission [eye roll]. One has to be willing to suspend disbelief when reading science fiction, but this was a tough pill to swallow. The author tries to use this as support for an argument by the priests that the mission is predestined and sanctioned by God. But....Eh....

In 2060, Father Emilio Sandoz (a member of the mission to Rakhat) returns to earth alone. Although 40 years have passed on earth, due to space travel time-relativity, only 6 years have passed for Father Sandoz. Based on earlier communications, those on earth know that the other seven members of the crew met horrible fates on Rakhat and Father Sandoz is implicated. He has horrifying injuries, his hands are maimed and he is too sick and traumatized to reveal what happened on Rakhat. Slowly, with the care of a small group of priests, he slowly recovers and shares his tale in a sort-of inquisition in large part to clear his name.

Sounds awesome right? Well, it is in alot of ways so I'll start with the good.

This book is addictive and will have you hooked because of the way the author introduces truly interesting mysteries and masterfully reveals the answers while simultaneously introducing new teasers. This might be the best book I have ever read in regards to the introduction, handling and resolution of mystery. There are also really really interesting and creative ideas in this book. Examining a world where sentient life is evolved from the relationship between carnivorous predator and herd-prey was really interesting and Russell's background in anthropology was evident in a good way. Furthermore, I thought the mystery of the damage to Father Sandoz's hands was darkly fascinating.

Now for the bad.

This book goes to places so dark and horrifying and "out there" it is rather shocking. Even borderline ridiculous. In theory this makes sense because the story examines how and why we should believe in a divine plan and love God when there is so much horrifying and unfair suffering in the world (and in all worlds apparently). In order to make such a point, there must be alot of horrifying suffering in the the story. The problem is this question has been addressed in countless ways by countless people for the entirety of recorded human history. Indeed, our ancient religious texts examine this issue thoroughly as it the most ubiquitous and important theological question of all time. As such, if the author is going to take the story to such a horrifying place, the pay-off needs to be there in the end. There must be some new or powerful insight on this age-old question that justifies why you took the story to such a sick place. In the end, The Sparrow failed to achieve this in my opinion. It made me think about God and human suffering but not in a way new or different than a daily newscast on the Sudan would. This is where the book failed for me. The author was unable to justify why and where she took the story. As such, it came off sensational and lurid and lost much of its power. Perhaps I missing something, perhaps it affected me more than I realize. I'm not sure which is why this review is so difficult to write.

My other issues with this book are more irritants than anything else.

1. The writing is clear, precise and straightforward but only serviceable at best. There was not artistry in the writing. In some ways that is a relief as you don't have to concentrate at all to understand the story. It was like fast-food, no-long term nutritional value but hit the spot at the moment.

2. The dialogue was GOD AWFUL. Possibly the worst I have ever read. Clearly the author wanted us to view her characters as witty, smart and irreverent. The problem is the "witty-banter" between the characters was obvious and intellectually-lazy. The responsive gut-wrenching laughter from the other characters in response to such lame comments made me think they were tasteless idiots even though they are all supposed to be geniuses.

3. Although there was a ton of character development, the characters still same across as one-dimensional caricatures and I didn't care about any of them. This is amazing as I am a very easy person to manipulate emotionally. Furthermore, most of the characters actively annoyed me, namely Anne Edwards. We are supposed to love Anne Edwards and care for her; she is a mother figure to the other characters, affectionate, accepting and skillful medical doctor. I HATED her. I spent the entire book waiting and hoping for her to be dispatched. Although Anne is many great things but she is also the worst of things: an aging hippie. Granted as a medical doctor she is less worthless than most aging hippies but just as the aging hippies in my neighborhood terrorize me on a daily basis with their self-involved annoying bullsh^*#t, so Anne Edwards annoyed me through out the whole story. One of her first acts upon their space mission is to have loud, old-person, hippie free-love sex with her husband in full auditory "view" of four Jesuit priests. The characters in the book inexplicably found it funny and endearing, I found it self-centered, totally inappropriate and obnoxious (i.e. typical aging hippie behavior). Hey Anne! If the gay elderly dying Jesuit Priest leader of the mission (and the only interesting and likable person in the book) wants to die in the closet so as not to distract the crew trying to survive on a new planet, so as not to fundamentally alter his relationships right before his death and so as to generally die in peace without a big emotional event LET HIM. He is being humble, selfless and a good leader under the circumstances. It may not fit in with your aging hippie liberal agenda to force everyone to know, validate and experience everyone else's sexuality but you and the other aging hippies can learn something about the quiet dignity of not making a goddamn spectacle of yourselves all the time. You would think I would like this book to the extent shot a couple of aging hippies into outerspace on an asteroid to meet horrible fates but I still resent the time I had to spend with them.

I guess that is all I have to say. I don't know if I would recommend this book or not. There are parts that are so great, even brilliant, and parts that are just ...yuck. I'll give this book 2 Pierogies because I don't know what else to give it. I was going to read the sequel but the thought of reading more of this dialogue is insufferable. I'll read the plot summary on wikipedia instead (I guess I am still interested in the plot to an extent which is something).

FYI - Brad Pitt's production company bought the rights to The Sparrow several years ago and supposedly Brad Pitt will be playing Father Sandoz. Yeah, I'll totally see it although I'm not sure the movie can be very faithful to the book as it is too disgusting for film most likely.

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