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#100: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

By Second-Place Finisher: Sophia | Books | August 10, 2009 |

By Second-Place Finisher: Sophia | Books | August 10, 2009 |

I had a little trouble deciding what to read for my last book in this challenge. Most importantly, I wanted it to be good. Who wants to read 99 books and then push through something boring and sucky at the very end? I have a number of good books still waiting to be read, including some by Cormac McCarthy, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, and John Irving. But I have already read something by all of those authors. So in the spirit of Cannonball Read and expanding my literary choices, I read The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell, which included both an author I had never read as well as a genre I rarely read. I was not disappointed. The story, the characters, the adventure, the mystery of what had occurred, and the questions of religion and morality drew me in and kept me deeply involved throughout the book.

We know almost nothing about Father Emilio Sandoz’s past when we first meet him, a mysterious figure coming home as the sole survivor, injured, shattered, and in disgrace from a missionary expedition to a far-off planet. The narrative jumps back and forth between Sandoz’s struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of what occurred and how the missionary expedition came to be many years earlier. Anne and George Edwards are an older, childless married couple, infinitely capable, constantly moving forward, and always fun to be around. Sophia Mendes is a brilliant creator of Artificial Intelligence programs, Jimmy Quinn is the youngest of the group, a giant of a man who is sweet and loyal and makes the crucial discovery that begins their quest. The group is rounded out by three more Jesuit Priests, D.W. Yarbrough, an ex-military priest with a strong Texas attitude and accent as well as the naturalist Marc Robichaux and musicologist Alan Pace.

The appeal of this book for me stemmed from a number of reasons, most importantly the characters. They were smart, felt relatively real, and they were fun to be around. A simple dinner party in The Sparrow would quickly turn into funny, sometimes emotional discussions about life, religion, and morality. Another appeal was the constant mystery. First, you want to find out what happened to Sandoz’s hands, then what his mysterious past contained, then how the expedition came to be, then what the new planet was like, then what could have gone so horribly wrong. I quickly came to care about the characters so much, that I’d get nervous at any little thing that went wrong, dreading their inevitable ends, and cringing at what I was imagining. Mary Doria Russell also brings up a number of interesting dilemmas about God, religion, and love, so besides the captivating characters and mystery, she asks some pretty stark, open-ended questions that keep you thinking. In addition, the sentient creatures the party encounters on the planet and their relationships, both to the humans, as well as each other bring up some interesting themes of dominance and morality.

With so many things to think about and the incredibly likable characters, I very much enjoyed reading this book and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Children of God, although I am already concerned that it can’t be as good. However, The Sparrow wasn’t perfect. I found a couple major plot twists a little hard to believe. Spoilers! First, I couldn’t understand how Father Sandoz could come back in such disgrace. Although the media can glom onto a scapegoat with great tenacity, I only halfway believed that Father Sandoz had done something horrible when I knew almost nothing about the story. The people who saved him found him caged, naked, bloody, and beyond comprehension, but they assumed he’d turned from a chaste priest to some kind of sex fiend? Then why didn’t he just find some hot, young, alien, boy-toy and set up house? From what I’ve heard, prostitution isn’t all that fun. Also, I couldn’t believe that Sophia Mendes would forget or not realize that she was using too much fuel so they wouldn’t be able to get home. She’s not one who would overlook such details.

The Victory Speech

I kind of stumbled into this challenge, at first never even intending to participate, and then never thinking I would actually read 100 books. I started blogging a couple book reviews because I liked the idea of keeping track and writing about what I read, but I didn’t officially join the contest right away because I’m sometimes ridiculously private and sensitive. The books I read and my reactions to them seemed too personal, somehow. I finally joined because Prisco sounded so excited about the growing number of participants and I figured no one would read my reviews anyway. It’s a good thing that Dustin only started publishing our reviews on Pajiba after a couple months had passed, or I would have balked again. Weirdly enough, my friends know that I’m taking part in this challenge, but they don’t know where or have my blog’s website, and I trust them not to search me out. It’s not like I’m baring my deepest, darkest secrets, but even my choice of books say an awful lot about me, and I’m always afraid I’ll be misunderstood.

I started this project at the beginning of a break in employment, thinking I could give myself some time to read, learn, and figure out what I want in life. Besides my obvious love of reading for the stories, learning, and the procrastination technique of staying busy while avoiding anything I didn’t want to do, the fact that I even finished 100 books actually says more about my ability for sustained unemployment than any kind of fast-reading ability. It took hours and hours and hours to read these books. I can’t skim. Even if I get really excited about what’s going to happen next and skim a page, I always go back to make sure I didn’t miss anything. There is no possible way I could have finished all 100 while gainfully employed. Even while I was doing some temp work, I could barely read 10 or 20 pages a day; there’s just too much to do. I am very impressed by all those with less free time and who still managed to read a great number of books.

Looking back at what I’ve read this past year, I find a pretty random selection of books from dense histories, to romance novels, to vampire books, to Oprah-approved drama. A few of the books that stick out the most for me were: The White Tiger, Middlesex, and The Book Thief, with my favorite non-fiction book of the year being In the Heart of the Sea. And I really liked the majority of the rest of the books I read. Being somewhat naturally compulsive, I read 50 fiction and 50 non-fiction books when I discovered I was trending in that direction anyway. I also decided to read a book beginning with every letter of the alphabet when I realized I was just missing about 9 letters. Although both these goals were rather unnecessary, they did encourage me to find and read some books I otherwise wouldn’t have read.

I’ve read a number of complaints about writing the reviews for this contest, but I never felt the reviews were too much of a burden. I like the idea of having a record of what I’ve read and my thoughts about the book; it’s what drew me to the contest in the first place, and the forced reflection did me good. I also think it helped that I wouldn’t let myself finish my next book until I had written the review for the one before. I am a tremendous procrastinator, so I know that if I ever got behind, there’d be no catching up. But now I’m not sure what to do with myself. I get almost all the books I read from the library, so writing a review allows me to keep a part of it with me, which I especially appreciate when the book is really good or meaningful. I’ve gotten into such a pattern of reading and writing that it might be hard to give that up. But even if I do keep writing about books, the push to 100 was pretty intense, so there will be no more counting or goals, just reading what I want when I have the time.

Publisher’s Note: It’s been a pleasure, Sophia. Thank you for participating in the challenge, and all the fantastic reviews. And congratulations on crossing the finish line. — DR

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Sophia’s reviews, check out her blog, My Life As Seen Through Books.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.