Thursday, December 27, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (2012 Book Countdown)

Continuing my best reads o' the year countdown, we have Jesuits in space! And literally the best book I've read in years...

The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

Procured from my old independent bookstore... oh, how I miss you, One More Page!

Procured in August 2011

Finished on December 4, 2012

Format: Paperback with a trippy, New Age-y kind of bird on it

Why I gave it a try: I have heard folks from both Bookrageous and Books on the Nightstand podcasts raving about this book - and then it showed up on a list of books that I had to pick something from to read this semester at grad school. Take care of a TBR and get class credit? Yes, please!

Summary: When scientists detect broadcasted singing from a nearby galaxy in 2019, the Jesuits launch a mission to learn more about the new culture on the inhabited planet, Rakhat. A team of eight priests and scientists is sent; only Father Emilio Sandoz is found by a UN mission to rescue the crew. The rescuers find him working in a brothel and witness him murder a child; soon after, they too, go missing, after putting Emilio on a shuttle home. Returning home in 2060, Emilio becomes Earth’s most reviled man. Their reputation in shambles, the Jesuits sequester Emilio and attempt to learn what happened. Intercutting between 2019 and 2060, Russell slowly reveals the true story of the Jesuit mission on Rakhat and creates one of the most complex and sympathetic protagonists in modern literature with Emilio Sandoz.

Thoughts: I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the best novel that I have read in years. In fact, it's probably made my top five list of novels ever. And it's a literary science fiction novel - what?! Anyways...

The Sparrow has a high volume of incident, but the plot is in service to Russell’s exploration of the "risks and beauties of faith." Themes include God’s sovereignty, what is means to glorify God, the possibilities and limits of grace, faith and doubt, the pleasures and perils of encountering another culture as an outsider, God’s ability to transform lives, and the capacity for someone to love God in the midst of suffering. So not light ground for any novel to cover. 

However, Russell manages to explore those themes in the midst of super engaging, super thought provoking hard science fiction. You get descriptions of the alien world, including the anthropology, ecology, sociology, and technology. The meat of the story centers around a mission to space to make first contact. The secondary plot line is a sort of religious who-dunnit type mystery, albeit without a murder to solve. So if you're worried that this is just a novelized version of a philosophy class, think again. When I was trying to summarize the plot, I was reminded again of just how much action Russell packs in a 400 page book.

That being said, what elevates this book from a typical novel, besides its combination of beautiful writing and engaging plot, is that the framing device, in the form of a single question. Did God create Father Emilio to go on this mission? As we seek the answer, we end up asking a lot of other questions, but this is the heart of Emilio's struggle for faith, both before and after his other worldly experiences. 

The prose is really wonderful - if I have a criticism, it's probably that the dialogue can feel a little forced, especially when Russell injects humor. That being said, the humor that she does introduce is a welcome breather from the heavy subject matter, and she successfully renders convincing monologues about the nature of science, faith, and reality. That's more than I can do with my dialogue. 

Please read this book. It will make you think and cry. It's got such a wide potential audience (it was recommended to me by religious folks and atheists, by sci-fi lovers and hardcore lit fic-ers, and by readers and non-readers, alike) and it deserves to find as many readers as it can. Basically, I really love this book. And you should read it. Now.


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

What was the last "new favorite" book you read?

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