books: February 2005 Archives


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This is the strange effect of getting lost. You become aware not so much of what is absent--all that is familiar and safe--but rather of what that familiarity has been keeping at bay: a world of strange shadows and cruel laughter, of odious companions just waiting for you to come out and play. And they know you will.

I have a crush on that paragraph.

Wednesday, I went up to Borders to catch a cup of coffee, and to drain a little credit from a gift card. As you might gather, this was a week where my mood dictated that I buy a book to which I have no obligation whatsoever, a book about which I could not say, under any circumstances, that I should read it. Typically, in these cases, I go with "quick fic," short books with snappy titles, or interesting authors' names, or intriguing cover art. And so Symptomatic it was, by Danzy Senna.

Our narrator is bi-racial, never named in the novel, and occupies a number of border spaces (race and class are two of the most persistent). Raised in California, she's in New York on a journalism fellowship, working for an upscale magazine. She's maybe a little hypochondriac, and she has a lot of trouble connecting with other people, including her own family. She meets one of her co-workers, Greta, who's much older but is also bi-racial. For the most part, the book traces the arc of their relationship, and I suppose I shouldn't say much more than that.

The writing is fairly minimalist, appropriately enough, for it's told from the perspective of a narrator who doesn't find much in the world or in other people to resonate with. At the same time, while the prose is somewhat surface-y, there's a lot of depth in unexpected moments. I found myself thinking a lot about the title itself, and its reference to the narrator's real and imagined illnesses, as well as the way that she sees the other characters in terms of the symptoms of incompatibility they present to her. Greta is the one character who asserts a connection, even when the narrator doesn't really feel it herself, and there's an interesting line of thought to be traced about whether or not Greta and the narrator are doubles of one another. Greta insists on the narrator doing what she does, liking what she likes. When Greta loses patience with the narrator, she expresses it by mimicking her speech or posture. And a symptom is the external reflection of an internal condition, which raises the question of whether the narrator herself is symptomatic of Greta, or vice versa.

From the get-go, Greta is a little creepy and the narrator a little too passive in their friendship, but both of these "flaws" are written very well. Even when it gets to the point, as one secondary character notes, where "There was only one way that story was gonna end," there's some really interesting characterization taking place. Greta's perhaps not the most sympathetic character around, but she's damn interesting.

The book made me think more than I'd planned, but that's not really a negative (or all that hard to do, truth be told). And it was quick, which was my plan. I should probably come up with a ratings system for books, if I'm going to pop up reviews, yes? Let's see: for movies, I use a 6-point scale: see it twice, full price, matinee, pay per view, HBO, and network tv (with special dispensation occasionally awarded truly horrific movies, usually in the form of "not if you paid me"). Hmm. I'll have to think on an analogous scale for books. Meanwhile, this book, had it been a movie, would have been a solid matinee, I think, which is pretty good.

"But the sparrow still falls."

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Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. (Matthew 10:29)

No one who knows me would mistake me for a particularly religious person, and perhaps that explains why I missed Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow the first time around. It was first published almost 10 years ago, and has been re-released in trade paperback to coincide with the publication of Russell's latest book. It was one of those books that I picked up at Borders to fill up a gift card, a serendipitous grab based on little more than the cover art.

I finished it a couple of weeks ago, and had been meaning to blog it ever since, because I found it to be one of the better books I've read in recent months. It's sort of science fiction, but only in the sense that it takes place in the near future and involves first contact with an alien culture. Believe me, though, when I say that this is actually a minor, backdrop kind of element. The first two chapters introduce us, in parallel fashion, to a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz. One thread of the story connects us to Sandoz as he gathers around him a network of close friends who eventually form the core crew of a mission to another planet; the second finds Sandoz the physically and psychologically broken, sole survivor of that mission, surrounded by other Jesuits trying to figure out what went wrong. The two threads proceed in parallel, drawing closer and closer until the middle of the story is finally filled in by the end of the book.

Sandoz is of course the sparrow referenced in the title, and really, the sci-fi is a backdrop for fairly detailed characterization, conceptualization of first contact, and perhaps most importantly, speculation on the varied roles that religion plays in the lives of the characters. It's a contemplative sort of book, both in terms of pace and theme, and that worked for me really well. Not all of the other characters are drawn in as much detail, and there were times where the fact that they had been expended made them a little expendable--this wasn't too big of a flaw, although there comes a point where to be "noticed" in the narrative is not a good thing for most of them.

It's hard not to read the book in the shadow of Star Trek, of course, but there are some nice details that point out the narrative convenience of technology like universal translators (Sandoz is a linguistic savant), and their absence here. All in all, it was an excellent read. There's a sequel that I'll be picking up one of these days, once I actually have a spare couple of hours to rub together. In the meantime, if you're looking for a book to add to your bedside table, you could do much worse than The Sparrow.



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This page is a archive of entries in the books category from February 2005.

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