Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Sparrow (a book review post)

As I've mentioned before, I am not much of a re-reader. It doesn't matter how much I like a book, I'm very unlikely to go back to it. There are just too many books I've never read for me to spend time re-reading things I've already read. However, as soon as I finished reading The Sparrow, I knew that one day I would read it again. I actually kind of just wanted to re-read it right then. But there was a sequel, so I opted to go that route instead. That was many and several years ago, that first reading, and I have finally gotten around to that re-read. I'm happy to announce that it holds up, which is always the worry when re-reading a book, that it just won't hold up to a second reading.

I think the first thing to point out about The Sparrow is that, for a science fiction book, you probably won't find it in the science fiction section of any bookstore. Generally, The Sparrow is found in the literature section (or whatever they call it now), which is--I want to say impressive, but that gives the wrong impression--abnormal for a book with aliens and interstellar travel. I'm going to say that this is because the book is not about the science fiction; the science fiction is just the stage for the true story, the story of a man and his faith.

So, while there is a voyage through space, the real voyage is spiritual. And I've probably given the wrong impression about what this book is about at this point, because it's not some book of Christian ideology. It's a book that asks questions, hard questions, and doesn't really know what to do with them or how to answer them. It never falls back on "God works in mysterious ways." I really appreciate the book for that. And it's not going to give you a bunch of "answers" at the end, either. There's no "trust God and it will all work out" pat on the back, and I appreciate it for that, too. To put it another way, this not a book preaching a bunch of Christian dogma.

It's not a "Christian" book at all, in fact, not from that perspective, anyway. It's not telling you the answers to all the questions of the universe. It's more asking those questions for you. Or, maybe, asking the questions you thought you weren't allowed to ask. Then it leaves you to figure out what you think about them, which can be a lot more uncomfortable than you might think.

This is one of those books that really speaks to me. It doesn't shy away from all of the crap that life can give you, and it certainly doesn't say, "Well, if bad stuff is happening to you, God must be punishing you." And I really want to talk about the specifics, but I'm not going to, because I think you should go read the book. This is one of the few (three, in fact) books that I think everyone should read. Everyone should have the opportunity to confront the questions The Sparrow asks and figure out if they're going to try to figure them out for themselves or shy away from them or pretend they don't exist.

The structure of the story only adds to everything else that's going on with the book. You follow the main character, Emilio Sandoz, through two different time lines: the trip to Rakhat in the past and the investigation into the trip in the present. It generates one of those situations where you know, ultimately, what happened, but you are rooting for the characters, anyway. You want to know "what" and you want to know "why." It's much more gripping than if the story had been typically linear.

That said, this is no lightweight book. It has humor, but it also has pain. It has enlightenment, but it also has darkness. It has great joy, but it has greater suffering. This is not a Harry Potter "This is great!" recommendation. It's not an amusement park; it's a mountain. But the journey, and the requirement of the climb, is worth it in the end. If you can make the climb. And I do get that not everyone can and not everyone wants to (it's hard work) but, probably, you will not regret it.

There's a good chance that in another five or seven years I will read it again.


  1. It's always great to find a book that resonates so personally. AND to find that it holds up years later on a re-read. That doesn't always happen as we get older and our perspectives change.

  2. (Sparrow-check)

    Re-reading is only for the best of books and I do have a list of them. Sparrow is my kind of genre.
    Thanks for the tip!

  3. Your review is interesting and honest and refreshing to read. I'm going to put this on my wish list TBR.

  4. Yes, an excellent book although I would have had a problem recalling the name of the book. Just to confirm this is the voyage to the planet where the higher ups sing? Not to give anything else away, I think we are talking the same book here.

  5. I agree that it's not a Christian book, though I'd consider it one of the most relevant novels to my religious understanding. And perhaps one of the best books I've ever read. Though, despite the fact that I am a re-reader, I've had a hard time ever going back to it. The suffering you experience through Emilio is...painful, to say the least.

  6. As soon as you said "Sparrow" and "Christian" I thought of Matthew 10:29-31, which is in fact what the author was referencing with that title. (I looked it up.) Apparently it's an allegory to early historic Jesuit missions and a reflection of Jesuit spirituality. The author "subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others." (wikipedia) It sounds really interesting and reminds me quite a bit of Ender's Game, at least in scope. (Card's own religion is also reflected in his writing, though it's not overt. At least, not in the Ender series.)

    I will check this one out! Great review.

  7. It doesn't sound like my kind of book, but this was an awesome review.

  8. That was one of the most enthusiastic endorsements I've ever read for any book. How can I possibly resist? I can't. I'm gonna have to read it. Thanks!

  9. You certainly make it sound interesting. I also tend to like books where it's a "climb", so I'll have to keep this in mind.

  10. Sounds like a great book. So... what are the other two books everyone should read?

  11. I'm going to add this to my list! :) Thanks for the great review.

  12. L.G.: It certainly doesn't. I have become wary of re-reading many of the books I loved when I was younger after trying a few out and responding with, "Why the heck did I like that?"

    Huntress: No problem!

    Sally: Awesome!

    Jo: Yeah, that's the book. I'm glad to hear that you liked it.

    S.L.: I can understand not wanting or being able to re-read this one. I don't think my wife will ever want to re-read it.

    Stephanie: It is a great book on many levels. There are some similar moral, let's say, ambiguities between Sparrow and Ender, although they don't deal with same subject matter.

    Michael: I think you would actually find this book surprising.

    Susan: You are going to have to read it. Resistance is futile.

    Jeanne: Do more than keep it in mind.

    TAS: They're listed in my "Of Significance..." section, but I'll tell you anyway: The Hobbit and Watership Down.

    Trisha: Awesome! And no problem.

  13. What you said.

    Having just finished this, and then borrowed "Children of God" from the library right away, I agree with your review, entirely. It's rare that I find novels so engrossing. And you're absolutely right about the way religion -- I'd say not just Christianity because Mendes is Jewish and Anne is atheist -- permeates the book without ever being dogmatic. In fact, both religion and science fiction are there like you said: as platforms upon which the story is built, and the story is very clearly there to simply ask questions and muse on the nature of religion and man's role in it.

    There's so much to talk about in relation to the book. I'll probably save that for my own review, someday, maybe? But one thing I think you could have touched on more is that the rather generic seeming "start at the end of the action" setup, which I found sort of disappointing at the outset, begins to work rather well, and when you say "You know how things turn out" it's actually because the narration we THOUGHT we believed was an unreliable narrator, and things are not what we expected.

    I should probably expound on this someday. Religion, unreliable narrators, the use of the overlapping stories, the necessary way the characters are introduced... there's a ton to think about on this book.

    Thanks for recommending it to me. First Rusty with "The Passage" and now you with "The Sparrow." PT, Sandra, your turns!

  14. The Hobbit I know well. I've never read Watership Down and have long been scared off by it - too sad.

  15. Briane: Well, there's a lot I could say about this book; most of what I didn't say, I didn't say because I want people to read it and discover it for themselves. But there's certainly room for a big discussion among people that have read it.

    Just so you know, I've been poking around for a copy of that Harkaway book.

    TAS: Scared off by rabbits? I don't understand.

  16. But... the rabbits die, right?

    I picked up this book as a kid and my mother instantly warned me off of it - telling me it wasn't really a book for children. Perhaps I should give it a go sometime.

  17. TAS: Some rabbits die, yes.
    I can't say that it's not a book for kids. Adams "wrote" it for his daughters while they were kids (actually, he made it up on a car drive, initially), and my younger son read it (and loved it) at 11.
    It's redundant to say it, but you should give it a try.

  18. I have my own "Sparrow;" I can't re-read "Prince of Tides" enough. It's always a wonderful thing, finding a book you can revisit. I'm going to have to look into this one!

  19. randi: I've never read that, probably because I didn't much care for the movie.