Friday, October 17, 2003

A House Divided?

Rebecca's parents are in town for the weekend, and that means a few days of Out On The Town activities… and it looks like the headliner one will be a trip to the Metrodome on Saturday for the Minnesota-Michigan State game.

Which raises a big question for me: who do I root for? I mean, my degree is from the University of Minnesota, so that seems like the obvious choice at first. But out in Morris, there was really almost no sense of connection at all to the Twin Cities campus (about the only time I felt any connection was when I'd come to Minneapolis to visit friends and happen to notice that the signs in front of buildings on the U of M here were exactly the same as the ones in Morris… for some reason, this would briefly give me the glow of being part of Something Bigger). If anything, the Twin Cities campus was seen as a sort of enemy, a gigantic cancer on the U of M system that sucked up all of the money and notoriety while we froze our asses off in rundown old farm buildings.

On top of that, I have a more recent beef with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities about their MFA program in creative writing; specifically, their policy of not letting me in.

So, then, maybe I should root for Michigan State. But that's not really a lot of fun, either. For one thing, Rebecca went there, and it seems like sort of a suckup move to hop on the bandwagon even though I've never been to the school- or the state, even. And I actually grew up kind of hating the Spartans because they were occasionally a threat to the Huskers* (this was never an issue with Minnesota, who played Nebraska twice when I was a kid, lost both games by margins in the 50-60 point ranges, and refused to schedule Nebraska ever again. Patsies, yes; threats, no).

In the end, I think I'll probably stay neutral. The only time I've ever really enjoyed myself at the Metrodome was when someone gave me Twins tickets and I went to drink beer without any stake in the game itself. I guess that'll be the thing to do tomorrow; although, with Rebecca's parents present, it'll probably be a good idea if I avoid getting loaded and heckling the coaches, which is actually what made that Twins game so much fun.

*Of course, all of this college football loyalty/Husker talk highlights one of the big shifts in my life… growing up in Nebraska, college football is the cultural tie that binds everyone and you flat out can not get away from it- even the high school goths will put red over their black on Husker game days. Coming from that environment, I kept the Husker loyalty for quite a while. In the past few years, though, I've wandered into the heresy that college football is a horrendous waste of money that should be going towards education (the big-time programs should be spun off into a for-profit farm league; perhaps they could license names and logos from the schools still), and this makes me a little sheepish about the strong Husker loyalty that I used to have. But when I do sit down and think college football, there are still some vestiges.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

I'm going to try a new intermittent feature here at Big Black Feline: capsule reviews of books, movies, or albums that I recommend. Why? Because a guy's got to have something to post, and I'm trying to spare you all of my comments about Canadian immigration policy.

So…

Big Black Feline Recommends: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I just finished rereading this book (and its sequel/companion, Children of God), and I'd go so far as to call it a must-read. When stated baldly, the premise sounds silly: signs of intelligent life are detected on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, and while the UN dicks around trying to decide how to make contact, a party of Jesuits just up and go.

Yep, Jesuits in space. But the thing is, this book works beautifully. Russell takes it completely straight, and she's rewarded richly for respecting her material. We end up with a very thoughtful, nuanced inspection of all sorts of deep issues- the existence of God, the rightness or folly of the Vatican, the perils of culture clash, and so on. Her characters, both human and alien, are fleshed-out and believable; the likable ones are very likable ones, and the not-so-likeable ones are at realistic in their suckiness. She even gets her science right, at least as far as I can tell… unlike a lot of stuff that gets classified as science fiction, nothing happens here that pisses all over the accepted rules of physics.

If there's a weakness, it's Russell's prose. It's not bad, but it certainly isn't going to win any awards. She's here to tell a story and make some observations, and the fancy language tricks can be handled by someone else.

The Sparrow is a satisfying read as a standalone novel, but the action does continue into Children of God. Children is worth reading (one gets further examination of the characters and issues of The Sparrow), but it isn't quite on the same level. Many of the new characters are less-defined; and in several spots, you can actually feel Russell laboring the book along to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B (by contrast, part of the beauty of The Sparrow is that it flows seamlessly through a series of seemingly inconsequential actions whose consequences start to loom quite large towards the end of the book). Still, the positives outweigh the negatives by a wide margin.

The word is that a film version of The Sparrow is in the works. It could be good- the book is eminently filmable. But even if it stinks, or never materializes, this is a first-rate book and you're cheating yourself by not reading it.