Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is about many things I like to read about: encounters with alien cultures, close-knit groups of friends, Catholicism, colonization, sin and forgiveness and whether God has a plan.  Basically, some people on earth in the nearish future discover that there are aliens not far from Earth, and they go on a Mission to meet the aliens and learn their languages and all about them.  The book opens shortly after the last surviving member of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been returned to earth amidst much ado and scandal about the way the mission ended; and the narrative goes back and forth between the current time, with various Catholics trying to make Sandoz talk about what happened, and the time of planning and preparing for and going on the mission to the aliens.

I bought The Sparrow for either fifty or twenty-five cents at the book fair last year, and then I didn’t read it and I didn’t read it, and I would have listed it on PaperbackSwap and been rid of it ages ago, except the cover and spine were all creased.  So I brought it with me this summer, thinking I could read it at last and discard it.  And then, see, then, Bybee said how satisfying and amazing she found it to write in the margins of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I thought, hey, this book’s all beat up anyway, I will try a new experiment and write in the margins.

The results were – mixed.

Good result: I thought of things while I was reading, as one does, and instead of forgetting them at once, I wrote them down.  Not brilliant observations or anything!  Just responses to things the writer had said, and usually because I disagreed, but it did give me a pleasing sense that I was being intellectually stimulated the way you are supposed to be when you read, and having something (scribbled margin remarks) to show for it.  For instance, this:

The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Like most colossal disasters.

I think this passage is just in there to sound profound at the end of a chapter.  Because in fact I do not think that most colossal disasters happen for this reason.  That is giving people way too much credit.  Most colossal disasters happen because are people are shabby, so they cut corners, and one day they turn around and found they have cut the wrong corners and too many of them and too close together, and a colossal disaster has resulted.  Which, by the way, leads me to:

Bad result: I got way critical.  I wrote down stroppy margin comments like “Really?” about D.W.’s accent, and “hate hate hate phrases like this” about “when her body was used” (seriously, I hate phrases like that), and “rarely enhances a line of dialogue” next to the word “conversationally”.  I was critical about individual words and phrases, and critical about the pacing of the plot, and critical about stylistic choices.  Put a pen in my hand while I am reading, and I feel like editing.

Good result: I engaged very strongly with the characters.  Though that might just have been that Mary Doria Russell wrote a set of strong characters, and managed, although there were a bunch of them, to create a solid group dynamic.  Inevitably, some characters were explored more thoroughly than others, but I felt like I had a handle on all of them.

Bad result: I engaged very strongly with the characters, and then they all died except for one.  (That isn’t spoilers, you find it out like three chapters in.)  They all died!  It was such a bummer.  I read the end early on, to find out how everyone died, so I wouldn’t have to keep worrying about it, and the end was extremely unhappy.  Also (and I cannot stress this enough) (and this is spoilers, even though you would probably figure it out your own self) I do.  Not like.  Sexual.  Violence.

Like I said, mixed results.

Here’s the problem with trying reading experiments: There’s no control!  I have no idea what I’d’ve thought of this book if I hadn’t written in the margins, AND I have no way of finding out.  As it is, I thought it was very well-written, had some point-of-view problems, and it was way intense.  I do not have the wherewithal to read the sequel right away.  Should I read it anyway, at some point?  Do you think colossal disasters happen because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions all of which seemed like a good idea at the time?  Have you found margin-writing improves your reading experience?

Other reviews:

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Booklust
books i done read
Adventures in Reading
Incurable Logophilia
Medieval Bookworm
Semicolon
The 3 Rs Blog
Bibliolatry
Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books
It’s All About Books

Tell me if I missed yours!

  • I’ve really got to read it to find out if I love it or hate it. It’s been on my unread stacks for something like 10 years.

    • Wow! It had been on my TBR list for a while before I read it, but not that long. I do find it very satisfying to clear something off the list that’s been on there for a while.

  • I loved The Sparrow but haven’t read the sequel, mostly because several other people I know who loved The Sparrow told me that the sequel was full of suckage.

    • Maybe I’d like the sequel more than people who were unambivalently in love with The Sparrow, particularly if it was a very meaningful book to them. I think that when you bring a lot of yourself to a book, it’s easy to get a particular idea of the world of the book beyond what the book actually shows you; and then if a sequel comes out that shows more of the world of the book, and it doesn’t match with what you imagined, it’s disappointing. I have had that happen to me.

      Or else the sequel might be genuinely really terrible.

  • I liked the sequel, but not quite as much – and it’s probably best not to read it right away.

    I appreciated your even-handed presentation – I unreservedly love this book, but I will reluctantly admit it’s not perfect :-).

    • It’s a very good book though. Even if I don’t end up deciding that it’s wonderful, I will still agree that it’s an excellent book. The one major thing that I thought was a mistake was having sections from the point of view of one of the aliens. It made them feel too human, not other enough in their thought.

  • I just put this on my reading list this morning! io9 reposted an old sci-fi recommendation list and it sounded interesting.

    The idea of marking up a published book makes me cringe, I have to say, even as an editor. I can totally imagine doing what you did. You might want to read it again as soon as you forget about it, which is incredibly vague, but I think you know what I mean.

    • Yep, it made me cringe while I was doing it; but I also really liked it. I love writing things down! I know I’m not going to make a habit of it, though. Once I’ve written in a book, I can’t list it on PaperbackSwap, and I know I don’t want to write in the books I own, and spoil their nice clean margins.

  • One of these days I’ll try reading a book and writing something in the margins and see where that goes 🙂

    • I hope you post about it when you do try it! I am curious to know what other people’s experiences are with this insane margin-writing thing.

  • I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. Your review has intrigued me even more! I’m especially excited to hear how much you engaged with the characters.

    I have never written in the margin of a book, but can see how it would be helpful. My problem is that I don’t tend to keep the books I’ve read so wouldn’t want to mark a book I’m passing on to someone else. If you are keeping a book forever then I don’t see any problem with it and I imagine it would be very useful to be able to see what your thoughts were at different points in the book.

    • Read it! I think you would like it.

      I keep books forever, and I know I’d like to see how my ideas about them change as I read them at different places in my life. Except I can’t do it, I can’t write in books I own and want to keep forever. I love them too much – or, at least, I have used up too much brain space fretting over how to protect them and keep them pretty.

  • I loved ‘The Sparrow’ mainly because it is in part about the way in which we understand other cultures and this is explored through the way in which we learn their languages. The approach taken is the same as I would use in my own work and I read this book after I had been seriously ill and thought that my brain would never function properly again. As I came to passages that I could connect with and found myself engaging with them it was as if my life had been given back to me. I’m not in a position to be objective about its literary worth, but on a personal basis it was a life saver.

    • I have books I feel that way about – Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Greensleeves is one, which is why I never shut up about it. Sometimes a book will come to you at exactly the right moment in your life, and when that happens it’s impossible to be objective. 🙂

      I LOVED the parts where they talked about language, and understanding different cultures through languages. I wish so much that I’d taken linguistics classes when I was in college, because I find linguistics fascinating.

  • justbookreading

    I haven’t tried writing in margins but I might have to just to see what I think about it. I would probably go crazy with note taking/comments and not pay attention to the story though. I will write down notes a few days after or sometimes before writing a review but usually my perspective is different at that point since I’m done reading. Good experiment though. The book looks interesting too.

    • I thought I was going to have a problem with writing down too many notes and failing to keep track of the story, but that wasn’t the problem at all. I cannot say in general whether margin-writing makes a difference one way or the other, but in the case of The Sparrow, I was never not interested in the story and its outcome.

  • I loved the Sparrow enough that I was disappointed in the sequel. It was worth reading, I guess, but I echo Florinda in saying not right away.

    I like the idea of writing in margins, but hardly ever do it, despite the urgings of my grad school professors. I underline and make brackets in the margin sometimes; that’s about it.

    Once at the Folger I got a copy of a little-known topical 18th-C satire that had marginal notes written by Robert Southey. That was a great day!

    • How come you were disappointed? I mean what disappointed you about it? I do not care about spoilers. 🙂

      Yeah, I never even wrote in the margins of my textbooks, I’m afraid, apart from the occasional, very light, penciled-in bracket. But I like finding notes (a few! not too many! and not stupid notes!) in the margins of used books I buy. I want other people to write in the margins of their books, many and thoughtful comments, and then donate the books to book sales so I can buy them and read their interesting comments and have a window into their minds; but I don’t want to do it myself. :p

  • First of all, I’m so happy that you read this book, even though you didn’t love it, because it is my favorite book ever and I always do a little dance in my heart whenever someone else reads it. 🙂

    I have never written in margins of a book, and I don’t plan to start. Typically I read for enjoyment, and if I am taking notes, that zaps all the fun out of it (reminds me of college).

    And I don’t know what I think about that quote. I think disasters can have multiple causes, sometimes they do occur because people cut corners, like you said, but I think sometimes that quote from The Sparrow is right. Sometimes people do make rational choices that seem like the right decision at the time, but lead to awful results.

    And, yes you should read the sequel, but I would wait a little while. They do go back to Rakhat in the sequel but I have to admit it’s not as good. The best thing about The Sparrow, for me, is the characters, and the sequel obviously only has one of the same characters, although new ones are introduced.

    • I’m glad I could make you do a dance in your heart! 🙂

      Oh, yeah, disasters definitely have multiple causes. I feel like the majority of the causes are to do with people being shoddy in some way – cutting moral corners as well as fiscal/physical ones, you know. Maybe it’s my perspective from being in Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina, and now again for the oil spill, that I feel so negative about people and their good intentions.

      They go back in the sequel? Emilio does? And it’s not, I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like minimizing his trauma to have him go back?

  • Wonderful review! I actually find it really interesting that your experience of the book was different because you wrote in the margins. I have never written in a book, but have taken notes in a separate notebook, and when I do, I find that I get so much more depth out of the text. It also helps me to write better reviews. I’d be interested to see if the same happens with margin notes, but I am kind of hesitant to write in my books!

    • I’m not sure the experience was different. The experience of reading this book was intense, but I (frustratingly!) have no way of knowing whether it was different than it would have been had I not been writing in the margins.

      I can’t make margin-writing a habit, but this experience has made me more inclined to think about taking notes while I’m reading. I do usually jot down a few things over the course of a book, but primarily that’s geared towards helping me remember what I want to say in a review. I might buy a new Moleskine and turn it into a reading journal, and see how that compares.

  • I haven’t tried margin writing. I’d like to but.. I just can’t write in good looking books and I’m a bit scared to try because like you said it might change the whole experience of the book. Then again, it might change it for the better, who knows?

    Btw, I did like the sound of the premise of the book, but like you I have a hard time reading about sexual violence and I’m not sure I could deal with the intensity of everyone dying.

    (Did I ever mention that I love that you admit to sometimes reading the end before you read the rest of the book? If the suspence in a book becomes too much to me I sometimes do that. I have a hard time dealing with suspence.)

    • I admit to nearly always reading the end before I read the rest of the book. I like to know the end so I can see how the book fits together. That, and the suspense thing. I know that suspense is a major factor – I frequently look up movies on Wikipedia to find out how they end, when I can’t take the suspense.

      The sexual violence is not that much, and not terribly graphic. I guess? I don’t have a good sexual-violence-degrees-of-graphic meter, because I tend to steer clear of it. It’s mostly talked about, rather than portrayed.

      Do you take notes in a notebook when you read, like a reading journal?

      • I don’t have a real reading journal, but I sometimes note down pages for things that stood out to me and that I might want to refer to in a review. Sometimes I don’t though, since noting things down feels like taking the flow out of the reading to me at times.

        I know exactly how you feel about movies! I often need to know if it’ll end well, or just know what the general story is about before I can really enjoy watching.

      • An emphatic yes to the ending well thing!! A few months back, I watched District 9 with my friend, and it’s hella scary at the beginning, and she would not let me look up the ending on the internet. I got seriously keyed up and not in a fun way. Down with suspense!

  • If I had a writing utensil in my hand while reading, I would totally be marking up the book with spelling corrections and snitty remarks. It’s better for everyone if I move on and forget about things like that. 😉

    • It’s hard to turn off your inner critic, isn’t it?? I wasn’t expecting to have such difficulty controlling myself!

  • So true about the lack of control! The only way is to read the book again in a few years without taking notes, but even if you’ve forgotten much, the first reading experience will probably still influence the second.

    I take notes in random bits of paper and/or on the inner cover (I know I know I know…but always in pencil!), but they’re mostly vague points that I don’t want to forget so I can include them in my post.

    • If only there were two of me! Science has no way of dealing with this problem!

      I am trying to cut back on the random bits of paper I write on. Inevitably I lose the Most Crucial One, and can only find the grocery lists and scribbled maps that I no longer need. I do like the notion of starting a reading journal…though whether I’d keep up with it is a bit dubious.

      • trapunto

        I was comforted when I found out that Ursula LeGuin does the random bits of paper thing. Vice loves company.

  • I haven’t written in margins since I was in college. The idea makes me flinch, now. I usually jot down notes on my bookmark (a blank scrap of paper) but I don’t get as detailed as you have- I probably would if I were filling the margins.

    Maybe read the sequel without making marginalia? you might like it better.

    • I didn’t make that many notes, to be fair. I wrote a few notes of two or three sentences, but it wasn’t detailed or regular. At the most, I’d guess I averaged one note for every three pages, and most of those were very brief.

      I’m going to end up getting the sequel from the library, so no chance of scribbling marginalia in that! 🙂

  • I’ve heard so much about this book and plan on reading it eventually. Thanks for the review.

    • I hope you enjoy it, when you do get to it! Russell’s a wonderful writer.

  • Jenny

    I only write in books for academic purposes, basically for the reasons you state — I edit and engage in a different and very critical way. Not that we shouldn’t be critical about regular pleasure reading, but I don’t tend to be so closely critical.

    Anyway, I haaaaaaaated the sequel because IT CHEATED. There. I said it. I couldn’t even finish it. Bleah. I loathe it when authors cheat.

    • Cheated how? Oh please tell me! I love to hear stories about how other people are crap. Righteously indignant is my favorite way to feel. :p

      • Jenny

        I just saw this. I don’t mind spoiling it for you but it seems a bit unfair to spoil it for everyone else, so email me if you want me to tell you how she CHEATED oh god I am clearly still not over it: jbrown14464 at yahoo dot com.

  • It’s been so long since I read the sequel I don’t remember specifically what disappointed me, but I’m pretty sure it was what I think of as the Frank McDevitt syndrome. He comes up with such fascinating alien worlds through hints and artifacts that it’s usually a let-down to find out more about them. They just can’t live up to my half-fevered imaginings. Like if Coleridge tried to continue writing Kubla Khan after he came down from his high.

    • Oh, yeah, I know how that goes. Mystique is hard to maintain. Whenever I start a new series of books, I try to find out a few things about each sequel before I begin reading it. That gives me a chance to adjust my expectations and give the books a fairer chance.

  • I really feel like I should give this book another go, since everyone else got so much out of it, but I just can’t get past Emilio’s hands. I just can’t. I’m sitting here right now, typing, and studiously not thinking about Emilio’s hands, because I won’t be able to type if I do. I’ll have to stick my own hands in my armpits or something, so they’re protected and no one can get at them. Which is kind of insane, I guess, but his hands freaked me out more than anything else I have ever read. Ever.

    • Oh! And as far as marginalia goes, I’m for it. I love writing in books that meant a lot to me, but I usually don’t start making hardcore notes until my second or third reading. I may underline the odd thing the first time through, but I need to build up some momentum before I can start scribbling away.

      I love finding used books with marginalia in them, too. one of my most prized possessions is a scribbled-in copy of Macbeth. The former owner underlined all my favourite passages and made some interesting notes on them. It’s a rather old copy, so I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing this myself. I’m glad he saved me the bother of wanting to make notes without being able to do so.

    • The hands thing was gross, but it would have been far worse if it had been, say, his eyes.

      (I like how I said “say” right there, like I happened to choose eyes as an example. I HATE EYE STUFF. HATE IT HATE IT. Because I have contact lenses, and I know how painful even the tiniest little irritation can be in your eyes.)

      I have thought about it some more, done some soul-searching, and come down strongly in favor of marginalia for other people’s books (I would enjoy reading your copy of a book, for instance, to see what questions you thought of, or what passages you liked), and strongly against in MY books. The weekend after I wrote this post, I went to a book sale and found this gorgeous box set copy of Angels in America, which is one of my favorite plays of all time. Oh it was so pretty. And then I took the books out and opened them and there was scribbling all over the place, and I nearly cried, and I didn’t buy them after all. Because if a book’s going to be My Official Copy of a book, I want it to be as beautiful as possible.