The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Mike’s review

Jesuits are such a well-adjusted branch of Catholicism. Healthy questioning of the way things are/could be. Inquisitiveness, not Inquisition. Even their self-doubt is plain and matter of fact. They’re so practical. So the search for self I was hoping for here probably won’t manifest.

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I get the point of the future/now sections, but they’re such a slog. I think there’d be just as much suspense, more even, if I didn’t know everyone dies and Emilio’s a prostitute and murderer (boy does this even end up to be a letdown). Also, not a spoiler because it’s revealed pretty early in the book.

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Plot is pretty simple. Jesuits discover a planet with life. They fund a private voyage to the planet. Only one priest makes it back alive. The story is told with alternating chapters set in the past and the now, during something like Emilio’s (the living priest) trial amongst his Jesuit peers.

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“From a culture gone mad with documentation, publicity, broadcast, narrowcast and pointcast, where every act of public and private life seemed to be done for an audience […]” This was written in 1996! I don’t remember that being a concern then. Wasn’t that about O.J. time though, which was arguably the start of that culture. But were people aware of it yet?

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“‘What is a whore but someone whose body is ruined for the pleasure of others? I am God’s whore, and ruined.'”

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I feel a genuine sense of wonder at first contact.

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“‘on the fate of Cleveland in the World Series of 2018′” so close. And may still come true!

“‘Anybody can have a couple of lousy centuries.” re: being a Cubs fan. The Cubs continuing to lose is a small recurring joke through the book that would have been real funny had I read it 2 months earlier than I did. As it was, it was still a little amusing to think about.

 

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Mike’s review

“She says it’s the least we can do because we are all dirty sinners and we are the ones for whom Jesus Christ gave his life.”

I wish I could believe again.

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“I’ve never really see or felt the spirit myself to say if it’s true or people are just lying, which is what adults will do sometimes because they are adults.” Simple worldview of a child. Adults lie to children to “protect” them, in general. This sentence captures that dynamic perfectly, better than I could think possible. This isn’t something I’ve ever thought about before and now it’s elucidated perfectly, forever. Words.

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“like the disciples–Simon, Peter, Andrew, I don’t know the rest, maybe if they had better names I’d remember them all.” Names are a constant problem for me and Zimbabwe-based names aren’t proving to be so difficult thus far, but now we’re only traveling in a group, where individual traits aren’t as important. We’ll see if the group splits up if I can follow and remember any individual traits set up thus far.

And I don’t know the disciples names either. But Simon and Andrew can’t be right, right?

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I took a break, but the U.S. section seems to come on very suddenly, with no real lead-up.

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“One part is yearning for my friends; the other doesn’t know how to connect with them anymore, as if they are people I’ve never met.”

Moving was the best and worst thing I’ve ever done.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Mike’s review

“My mother […] died in childbirth as I surfed into this world on a torrent of her blood.”

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I heard an excerpt of this on the radio when it first came out. But I remember like a creaking door slam sound, so I might not be remembering this perfectly. I was blown away. Rightly so, as I’ll say here and at least twice more, the imagery is really good. What’s crazy is my aural comprehension sucks. And I was still drawn in.

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Suppose this is as good a spot as any to plot summarize: A drug-addled pornographer (key character detail: he drives with a bottle of whiskey between his legs) crashes his car, because something. I don’t remember why he was driving. Quite possible that motivation was never given. Hey, here’s this stupid bender where I’m high as fuck and driving through the fucking hills for no fucking reason. Deal with it.

He’s burned very badly, but lives, even though he has no desire nor motivation to do so. And one day this mental ward patient shows up in the burn ward, having not passed security, but still there, and starts acting like she’s known the protagonist forever. She’s very weird. It takes forever, but eventually we find out she’s 700 years old and the narrator and she were in love 700 years ago and she’s apparently been alive the whole time (though we’re never really given any idea what she’s been doing in the interim).

For no good reason, the narrator (I don’t know if he had a name or not) falls in love with the woman (Marianne Engel). So he lives with her when he gets out of the hospital. There’s been a bunch of religious (Catholic) shit going on, which is relevant because Engel’s been told by God that she basically needs to kill herself after she convinces narrator to love her (I think).

But wait, there’s all these stupid history lessons about medieval Germanic Catholicism and handwriting translations. Also, chapters that are love stories for the sake of love stories. Like just trying to convince the reader that love is in the air or something.

My plot descriptions always sound like I hate what I read. Truthfully, this plot is stupid. But some of the imagery is astounding. Book could’ve been cut in half. Author told me things a lot of things like, of course they’re true. I didn’t write down examples, but there were times where I was like, “clearly a first novel,” like I’m some fucking expert about words or something. I’m really good at being negative, but this isn’t terrible. Recommended? If you’ve got a bunch of free time.

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There’s a weird spelling of magic as majick at one point. Thought it was maybe a Canadian thing, but can find no evidence of such being the case.

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Acknowledgements (which I skipped ahead to read at one point because I was dying in the regular body of text): “the editors […] who, with elegant scalpels helped debride the dead parts.” I shudder to think how long and unnecessary that first draft was.

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I don’t see how this history of Catholicism stuff can pay off big enough to justify the slogs (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

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186 pages in and I’m halfway down the first jacket flap summary.

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Marianne Engel essentially lives in a partitioned, furnished warehouse. Central air is impractical (this is my narrative problem; not one soul living 700+ years and another reincarnated through time). I suppose a Manitoban wouldn’t know jack about central air though.

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Some of this (especially the imagery) is so good. And then some (history lessons, love is all stories, casual misogyny) is excruciating. I get it though. When you write this shit, you think, “It won’t happen to me. My version won’t be hacky garbage. I’ll write what love is.” It will happen to you though. It always does. (I’ve got one of these in the chamber, but mine’s good. This won’t happen to me.)

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Why would mercenaries carry nails with them? What are they building?

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Wait a minute. Snow? If protagonist was a pornographer (producer with company and connections enough to have a network), this has to be set in LA area. Dear Winnipeg, it doesn’t snow everywhere.

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Even without the author photo, it’d be obvious this book was written by an attractive person who’s well aware of his attractiveness: “only after my skin was burned away did I finally become able to feel […] I accepted this atrocious face and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them.” There were earlier, better examples of the clear thought-question nature of this work (“what if I were ugly? Would I still be the same person?”), but I didn’t write those down, so you’re just gonna have to deal with that one.

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Page 372: jacket plot points have all come up in narrative, finally.

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Hell chapter makes me want to punch myself in the face. It’s a wall…but really it’s a dead body…but really… I get why it’s here, but it’s rough to read. If Inferno (which I’m pretty sure this chapter is openly ripping off) wasn’t so terrible and I could manage to get through it, would this chapter be better? Maybe. Don’t know, didn’t go to college, didn’t have to read that garbage, so I didn’t.

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“Bitchsnake” just disappears with no payoff. (This is part of the casual misogyny. Also, “I’m not a sexist, but…” and “I’m not a racist, but…”)

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M. Night Shyamalan version: narrator is actually the devil, who has convinced Engel to come to the darkside.