Friday, July 24, 2015

I DON'T KNOW


Review of I DON’T KNOW: IN PRAISE OF ADMITTING IGNORANCE (EXCEPT WHEN YOU SHOULDN’T) by LEAH HAGER COHEN

Cohen opens this dissertation on ignorance with a personal story from grad school. In her first week, a professor started a class with instructions that used a word Cohen didn’t know. From looking around she could see everyone else following along without any perceivable difficulty. This discouraged her from raising her hand to ask what that word meant, which then led to her spending most of that class, as well as a few subsequent ones, thoroughly confused. 

Our society discourages honest admission of what we don’t know. It makes us look weak, we’re taught. It makes us look dumb. Cohen lists a few of the many books on faking knowledge, books that usually provide just enough information on common topics of conversation that one can pass as informed and credible. In actuality, we miss out on opportunities when we refuse to say, “I don’t know.” Most obviously, the opportunity to genuinely gain new knowledge - but the message here is that perception of intelligence is valued higher than actual intelligence. A lot of people would rather everyone think them smart than actually be smart. Centuries of experience and evidence have demonstrated that people who recognize how little they know are often wiser than those who think they know everything.

We aren’t born with this fear of admitting ignorance; we’re taught it. Young children usually have no difficulty conceding gaps in knowledge. Then they almost inevitably experience some form of ridicule for not knowing something. In some cases, the teasing is mild or friendly and doesn’t really affect the lucky individual’s confidence. However, for others the experience feels shameful or humiliating and socially trains the child to feign understanding to avoid further embarrassment. To emphasize this point, Cohen shares another personal story, this one of her niece answering a teacher’s question with “I don’t know” only to be called into the hall where the teacher yelled at her for her stupidity. Even classic children’s stories send a clear message that “I don’t know” can be embarrassing or even dangerous. In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the subtext acknowledges that most people will go foolish lengths to hide what they don’t know. In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold leading the king to demand the daughter perform this feat or else. Admitting “I don’t know” would mean her death.

Cohen quotes a teacher who repeatedly said, “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” and I instantly flashed back to my similar experience in high school with an English teacher. He would grade our papers, but refuse to explain why students received the grades they did. “If you can’t figure out why you got a C on your essay, I can’t help you,” he would say. This infuriated me. What are you doing here then? I wanted to scream at him. What’s the point of a teacher if not to draw attention to the student’s possible gaps in knowledge or technical weaknesses? If I knew all my own shortcomings, I wouldn’t need peers or mentors.

I personally don’t have much trouble admitting ignorance, though I did more so in the past. The shift came about (big surprise coming) because of books. I read a lot, 1-2 books a week, 50-100 books a year. I can’t read everything, though. No matter how much I read, I’m acutely aware of how much I still haven’t read. When people ask if I’ve read a book, I always admit when I haven’t. I understand why some people find admission difficult, though. The truth is that, yes, sometimes people are rude or condescending because I haven’t read such and such classic or bestseller. Over time, though, I decided that’s their problem, not mine. There are tons of books in the world, not to mention tons of other interests, hobbies, and things to know outside of reading. How shortsighted to judge someone for knowing less than you in one small area of all there is to know in the world.

Certain jobs reinforce this discomfort with the phrase “I don’t know” even more. Medical professionals, for example, make diagnoses, recommend courses of action, and estimate probability of success. In many cases, they don’t know things with absolute certainty. Unfortunately, the majority of patients expect utter confidence from their doctors. They want medical advice to feel absolute, like it’s God’s word and not that of a flawed human working within the limits of our (and his or her) medical understanding as well as our technological capabilities. Cohen also discusses how in work environments many employees would rather make a mistake than admit uncertainty from the start by asking a question.

The book skims the topic of death, but raises interesting points. Death is a big “I don’t know.” Some people struggle with that uncertainty more than others. Some look for explanations or ideologies that they can wholeheartedly embrace so they can replace “I don’t know” with confident conviction, a more comfortable emotional state.

As the title implies, the book also touches on when “I don’t know” can be harmful. There’s a chilling example of children feigning ignorance rather than speak up about abuse. Not to mention far too many worldwide examples of countries, groups, and individuals alike using “I don’t know” as an excuse not to take action, the look-the-other-way mentality.

Despite my lengthy review, this is an extremely short book at only 114 pages. I finished it in a single hour-long sitting. While I enjoyed it thoroughly, it does feel like it’s skimming the surface, more a discussion starter than an in-depth exploration.

Occasionally, some of the various points and stories feel a little disjointed. I found this further proof that the book might benefit from being longer. Many short points feel like they could be whole chapters.

If you’re at all interested in this book, you really have no excuse not to read it since it’s such a minimal time investment, especially proportional to the value of the subject matter. I for one hope that to see “I don’t know” more frequently embraced as, rather than a moment of avoidable weakness, an integral stepping-stone to obtaining priceless knowledge.

Friday, July 17, 2015

DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS



Review of DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS by LAINI TAYLOR
(third in the DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy)

I felt both extremely excited and quite a bit hesitant about this final book in Taylor’s ambitious, addictive trilogy. I adored the first book in this series so much that I went read everything else Taylor had written. However, I liked the second one far less and so worried about whether this third and final novel would redeem the series or resonate even less. While I have some reservations, I found plenty worthy of appreciation, both in the series’ overall arch and this final installment.

DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS opens with a brand new character. She’s an interesting edition (significantly more so as the story progresses), but she’s not the reason I bought the book. The author did this in the second in the series, too - opening with secondary characters and plotlines when I cared more about addressing major cliffhangers right away. We return to everyone and everything eventually, but patience is a must for this one.

I found DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, the second book, a little too dark for my taste and, this latest one, DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS a little too melodramatic. The very first chapter begins with high stakes drama as supernatural creatures bring their war into the human world. From there, these pages overflow with self-pitying “woe is I” sentiment and an everyone’s-hurting-inside theme. (To be fair, the self-pity is entirely justifiable, merely draining when all condensed together.) I even found the writing I adored so much in the first book too indulgently unrestrained now. (A lot of lines would be more affecting if they took the “less is more” adage into account.) Additionally, there’s an abundance of wildly theatrical lines foreshadowing more tragedy in upcoming chapters. I will admit, though, that sometimes the author saved scenes from sensational melodrama with heartfelt sincerity. Some emotional scenes simply struck me as far too viscerally real to belittle them for said emotion.

My main concern for this final book regarded the romance. Taylor handles that far better than I feared, but still didn’t persuade me entirely. In the first book, I felt gloriously floored by this haunting tragedy of lovers ripped apart and one turned numb and cruel by his loss. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the first book. What Akiva did - blaming an entire race for his love’s death and working towards their complete extinction in revenge - is genocide. I didn’t resent the first book for this violence; I found it painfully heartbreaking but a stronger story for being such. However, to me the second book then elevated Akiva’s actions - as though he wouldn’t have murdered so many hundreds (thousands?) of beings if not for how much he loved Madrigal and how much her death destroyed him. In other words, I felt the series romanticizes genocide. When Akiva discovers Madrigal resurrected as Karou and must come to terms with what he has done, I found it all immensely grim and affecting, but I wasn’t rooting for them to reunite. Honestly, I hoped she would find a new love interest. And book two seemed to set the stage for a reunion in book three. I will say, though, that DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS does a superb job of emphasizing the utterly vital role forgiveness plays in any kind of lasting peace. However, there’s a difference between forgiving (letting go of anger towards) someone who killed countless of your kin...and dating him. Nevertheless, Taylor swayed me far more than I expected, not merely regarding the romance but about the magnitude of forgiveness, and I cherish books that can do that: really challenge your perceptions.

I love Ziri. Speaking of forgiveness, he embodies the concept. Life beats him around with a mind-boggling lack of mercy and yet he never lets this change him. Sure, he despairs, but he doesn’t turn bitter. He self-pities - a little - but he never so much as considers vengeance. I hesitate with this adjective, but he’s the epitome of a pure soul: all self sacrifice for the bigger picture with only brief wistful glances towards what he would have liked for himself.

The humor frustrated me at times. What worked so well for the first book turned forced in the second and flippant in the third. This is a dark book, a dark series. Trying to make such a horrific war funny or even cute only comes across as dismissive.

I have mixed feelings on the ending. Avoiding explicit spoilers,  the book feels like it cuts off before telling the rest of the story. If the author didn’t have a section at the end where she talks about the satisfaction of finishing the series for good, I would suspect it wasn’t actually finished. The end does provide closure for several main plot threads...but unleashes new ones in the last few chapters. I did admire all the extra complexity woven into an already elaborate story, but I didn’t like new conflicts being raised at the last moment, conflicts we’ll never see resolved.

All in all a solid finish to a bold, exceptional series that will stand out in my memory for years. I’m still eagerly watching for whatever Taylor publishes next.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A FEAST FOR CROWS


Review of A FEAST FOR CROWS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
(fourth in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

Same old, same old if you’ve read earlier books in this series - but if you loved them that’s not a bad thing. Betrayal, murder, rape, and on it goes. We meet new characters and lose even more, but the elements nevertheless start feeling very familiar. I kept a metal list of who I thought might die next - kind of an irresistible game with a book like this (and I couldn’t accurately predict anything; I have to give the author that).

I will mention that most people I know who lost interest in this series did so during this book, often before finishing it. I suspect perhaps due to what I mentioned above about same old, same old. That feels an odd statement regarding a story so layered and complex, packed with an abundance of vibrant characters, and overflowing with turnabouts and twists. However, sometimes stories with such wide scopes can feel less focused compared to simpler stories that connect with fewer or even a single character’s experience. A story about humanity overall can easily feel much less universal than a story about a single individual. It’s emotions we connect with and that’s hard if we don’t spend enough time bonding with single characters. Martin introduces quite a few new viewpoints in this installment. (Well, perhaps he has to after killing off so many previous viewpoint characters!) I grew increasingly interested in each as I kept reading, but at first it frustrated me opening the novel with brand new people I don’t yet care about when there are so many already established ones with unresolved storylines. There’s even a note at the end of the book explaining that this novel grew too long, so rather than divide it in half the author focuses on certain characters in A FEAST FOR CROWS and will focus on others during the same time period in the next book, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. So be prepared to learn hardly anything new about some of your favorite characters in this installment.

I’m very hopeful that magic will start playing a greater role in the story. I’m often more interested in the fantasy elements than the court intrigue and war politics, but the book’s weighted significantly more towards the latter. However, the series has been steadily building towards a magic revitalization that never really comes. The next book is tilted A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, so I’m crossing my fingers that magic - or at least dragons! - will play a significant part.

This is an animated series with dynamic characters and countless interlaced plot threads. I adore the varied cast, though often wish I could focus closely on fewer characters for a deeper connection and understanding. I also find that, while I enjoy the storyline, it’s frequently buried beneath extraneous detail, especially regarding the setting and day to day life. I occasionally catch myself more skimming than carefully reading if pages upon pages focus on the scenery, clothes, food, etc. more than moving the story forward.

That said, the ending is a brilliant setup for the next book and I can’t wait to start it. Dragons, ho!

Friday, July 3, 2015

PURE


Review of PURE by JULIANNA BAGGOTT
(review based on an advance reading copy)

PURE begins with a haunting opening and leads the reader through a sickly wondrous world of unlikely misfortune and all too likely betrayal. This book intrigued me when I first received an ARC before its publication, but despite all the amazing feedback I heard about it, the novel still somehow became one of those that kept finding itself bumped aside for others.

PURE takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where worldwide bombings wiped out a significant portion of the population while mutilating those who survived. Anyone who did survive became fused to whatever they happened to be holding, touching, standing on, etc. at the time of the explosions. Our heroine has a doll in place of her hand. Her grandfather has a small fan in his throat. Another boy has birds on his back. Others are forever joined with another person while some even bonded with sand or other parts of the earth. However, some lucky people escaped both the horror of dying and the horror of surviving. Before the detonations, an isolated dome was built and a lucky few were hustled to safety at the last minute. Themes of class step forward from the subtext once the book touches on who made it into the dome and who didn’t.

Not that it makes any difference to my review, but for those wanting a label I would call this book soft sci-fi. It’s doubtless speculative fiction, but one could argue between fantasy and science fiction. Any technological speculative fiction lends itself to sci-fi, but I always distinguish between what I call hard sci-fi (that delves into almost believable nuts and bolts behind how real science backs up the improbable fiction) and soft sci-fi (that uses science as the explanation without really elaborating any further). Humans being fused to objects or other living things sound more like science fiction than fantasy, but a lot of details aren’t explained scientifically, such as how you can’t cut yourself away from whatever you’re bonded to without dying. Regardless of the label, it’s a great book, but I only mention this because I know many avid science fiction readers who feel frustrated when they pick up a soft sci-fi book that uses the speculative fiction premise as a catalyst for the characters but then doesn’t elucidate how the science works.

I loved this book, because I loved the characters, and quickly, too. The story primarily focuses on Pressia, the girl with the doll for a hand scrambling to survive in the wild wreck of humanity left behind after the detonations, and Partridge, the privileged son of a high power family in the Dome who suspects even his ideal sheltered life hides dangerous secrets he can’t ignore. An interesting side note, though: I’ve primarily seen PURE shelved with adult speculative fiction even though it stars young adult characters. As I discussed in this old blog post, the label Young Adult is far more about marketing than any one defining feature of the story. I can’t easily tell any particular reason PURE makes for better adult fiction than Young Adult except that the publicists no doubt thought it would sell better that way.

My only criticism is that I usually couldn’t picture whatever the author described, be that an action scene or a grotesque creature. The writing still conveyed emotions and impressions easily, so I didn’t feel particularly deprived by not being able to visualize everything - but for whatever reason the writing didn’t convey images to my mind so much as the abstract or emotional gist.

PURE may have been lost in a sea of post-apocalyptic novels around the time of its publication, but the intricate worldbuilding and likable characters make what initially feels like a routine premise suddenly delightfully unique. I certainly won’t wait so long to pick up the next book in the series.

Friday, June 26, 2015

WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH


Review of WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH: HOW TO BREAK FREE OF OVER-THINKING AND RECLAIM YOUR LIFE by SUSAN NOLEN-HOEKSEMA

I saw this book in the library - titled WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH - and felt so flattered that someone had written a book about me that I borrowed it without...well, without thinking too much. Once I started reading I quickly discerned two key facts about myself: 1. I am actually not so much an overthinker as I am a worrier, at least by the author’s definitions. And 2. I intuitively picked up on accepted strategies for when I do trend dangerously near overthinking. Enough about me, though. The key facts about this book are: 1. It’s a vital read if you overthink. And 2. It’s an informing read if you know someone who overthinks. (Hint: we all do.)

First let’s differentiate between the author’s descriptions of overthinking vs. worrying. Overthinkers fixate on events in the past while worriers obsess over what could possibly go wrong in the future. If you can’t put the way your boss snapped at you out of your mind, you’re overthinking. If you plan ahead for all the different kinds of terrible bosses you might have one day and how you would handle each type, you’re worrying. Myself, I spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over highly unlikely events that could befall me...and yet when something difficult does come my way I buckle down, handle it, and put it behind me. So I am a worrier but actually not much of an overthinker. Nevertheless, I found this book extremely interesting and informative and caught snippets here and there very relevant to my own experiences.

One of the fundamental issues with overthinking is that people think what they’re doing is useful. Some people justify that by fixating on something that bothers them, they’re working through it. In truth, more often than not, fixating means stewing. Overthinkers wind themselves up, whether in anger, depression, or insecurity. Take the example from above of obsessing over how your boss snapped at you. An overthinker could dwell on this for hours or even days: “Maybe my boss was having a bad day. Maybe I messed up on something. Maybe she never really liked me, just usually hides it better.” Each thought balloons out with more and rarely buys the overthinker the resolve they want, but rather feeds the negativity.

Luckily, the author provides a plethora of concrete strategies for handling overthinking, most extremely simple. I realize now that I already use two of these strategies to steer away from overthinking without even knowing that’s what I was doing. The first is a variation on meditation; simply turn the thoughts away. How exactly people handle this differs depending on what works for you. I simply tell myself, “Nope, I won’t think about that.” Or “Not going there.” Usually that’s enough, but if not I might use a visualization exercise that I’ve done for meditation: picturing the thought as a physical thing trying to enter my mind, a physical space, and then imagining myself gently ushering the thought back out the door.  Some people actually say, “Stop!” aloud when they realize they’re overthinking or do something physical like shake their head. All that’s important here is that the method of self-correction works for you. The second strategy I’ve used is to schedule overthinking time. This sounds bizarre, but if you feel you need some time to obsess or if you believe you really should focus on this particular issue at some point without letting it consume your whole day, block out some time. If you catch your mind wandering to the issue, remind yourself it’s not time yet. I’ve only done this on a handful of occasions, usually when I don’t want something bothering me to slow my productivity. The interesting part about this approach is that many overthinkers find that whatever wound them up so much earlier seems much smaller and easier to handle if they make themselves wait a bit before reflecting on it.

The author uses plenty of case studies to make her points. I always enjoy case studies, because they move abstract psychological concepts into applicable situations. The earlier chapters are peppered with snippets from different case studies while later chapters - that zero in on specific, common overthinking pitfalls such as family, romantic relationships, work, and trauma - follow primarily one case study very closely. Some stories end happily with people who either learn how to handle their overthinking themselves or seek out help to do so,  while other case studies represent the cautionary tale side of spectrum: here’s what happens if you don’t address your overthinking.

Before wrapping up this review, I wanted to single out some of the facts, insights, and advice that I found most intriguing. For starters, there’s the fact that women overthink much more than men. I won’t go off on a longwinded tangent, but suffice it to say that the author fills an entire chapter, with additional mentions throughout the book, on how gender ties in with this problem. She also references something I’ve read in numerous psychology books: that our modern tendency to frequently ask ourselves, “Am I happy?” does more harm than good, leading us to dissect our lives in a manner unheard of in earlier generations.

I realized I’m guilty of one significant overthinking problem: when I’m down or upset I try to pinpoint why. This is dangerous because it asks us to break down our life into all the possible reasons we could be unhappy. The ridiculous truth is that maybe, while we’re wondering about big life questions, the real reason we’re down is the weather, hormones, our diet, or something else quite simple. Start small, the author suggests. If you insist on searching for why you’re low one day, ask yourself if it could be something you ate or not enough sleep before you jump to interrogating yourself about your marriage, career, and other life choices.

I agreed wholeheartedly with what the author says about forgiveness. Throughout the book and especially in the chapter focused on trauma, the author addresses overthinking terrible things that have happened to us, where we feel wronged, victimized, and entitled to justice or revenge. In summary, she explains that forgiveness is not condoning a person’s actions but accepting what happened, perhaps - in some situations - understanding the culprit’s motivations without excusing the crime, and ultimately letting go of any anger, anxiety, or despair this event created. Some people struggle with forgiveness, because they feel the culprit doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, but it’s not about what they deserve. It’s about what the victim deserves, which is: to forgive and move on, and to transition from the identity of a victim to that of a survivor.

The last topic I wanted to call out has to do with how we measure our success. Several psychological studies have discerned that some people measure success by their own performance while others measure success more by rank. In one study, participants performed a task and were then told how they performed. Some people only listened to whether the evaluation of their performance was good or bad and decided if they were successful or not based on that. However, other people paid close attention to everybody else’s evaluations and cared less about getting good or bad feedback than in ranking above their peers. They seemed more pleased if they got a bad evaluation that was better than someone else’s worse evaluation than if they got a great evaluation that was less impressive than someone else’s glowing evaluation. I singled this discussion out, no doubt, because I believe the first method (measuring success by your own performance) is better but fear I sometimes fall in the latter category (which may be inevitable, to some degree, as a writer; our work is constantly compared against others’ and found better or worse).   

It’s funny how a great book about the ways in which we should all think a little less can give us plenty of excellent food for thought! 

Friday, June 19, 2015

LADIES' NIGHT


Review of LADIES’ NIGHT by MARY KAY ANDREWS
(review based on audiobook, read by KATHLEEN MCINERNEY)

LADIES’ NIGHT is a light read, more entertainment reading that passes the time than something that pushes the envelope and challenges your perceptions. Grace and her husband Nick have a dream life, making an impressive living from Grace’s remarkably popular lifestyle blog. Grace writes the posts and Nick handles the business side, such as finding sponsors and advertisers. Then Grace catches her husband with her pretty, young assistant. At first it seems like the worst thing that could have happened to her. Then it gets worse. Nick is not about to let Grace walk away from their marriage with the blog that has supported both of them in grand style. He uses underhanded tricks Grace never would have anticipated to sabotage her image and fight for control of the original, namesake blog that already has so many devoted readers. Needless to say, this is a story about a pretty messy divorce. More importantly, though, it’s a story about staying strong and true to your own sense of what’s right despite a slew of deliberate destruction sent your way.

LADIES’ NIGHT is a good, fun read with my main criticism being that the characters often feel closer to caricatures than real people. You can usually tell whom you’re not supposed to like from the voice alone. Antagonists have annoying voices. Nick, the husband, in particular doesn’t feel real. He has an almost split personality, bouncing between being decent and mature when it suits the emotions for the scene to the pettiest, most vindictive jerk you’ve ever met when the story needs a despicable villain.

I invested in the story more than I expected. I frequently felt genuinely worked up at the injustice of it all and vastly admired Grace for how she carries on when it seems like her world is collapsing around her. I suppose the truth of the matter is that even if the characters aren’t always believable, nevertheless the story is. Grace puts me in mind of any number of true stories about women (or men) put in infuriatingly unfair circumstances who refuse to become bitter, who resist the urge to give up, and who prove that it’s not what happens to you that defines you but how you handle it.

I will also admit that the story wraps up a little too neatly at the end, a weakness I find more common in what I think of as entertainment reading. That being said, I enjoyed the book enough to seek out Mary Kay Andrews’ other books, so expect to see more reviews of her work soon!

Friday, June 12, 2015

SHANTARAM


Review of SHANTARAM by DAVID GREGORY ROBERTS

Several people have urged me to read this book over the years, but I’ve collected mixed reviews. Many adore the novel while some find themselves baffled at its popularity. Others, like myself, form more divided opinions that make it an excellent conduit for discussion.

I’m convinced that the book will appeal most to people obsessed with India. Personally, I’m obsessed with Japan and usually adore works with Japanese themes, settings, and/or characters.  At its core, SHANTARAM is a love letter to India. Now I’ve mentioned before in my Book Elements post that setting is what I care about least in a story. So novels where setting becomes a powerful character in its own right often don’t hold my attention very well. With SHANTARAM, I often caught myself wondering at the point of the story. The tale weaves, rambles, and wanders as it ambitiously recounts so many details that it loses some sense of focus and direction. Then I realized the point isn’t so much plot or characters, as is my preference (though there are plenty of engaging characters, but that’s another topic). The point is reveling in the wonder that is India.

I found the writing strong and skilled but sometimes overly stylistic. People with a similar mindset to the author and protagonist will obviously connect the most, but otherwise much of the writing feels a bit longwinded. The same can often be said as or more eloquently with far fewer words. Some sprawling descriptions of scenery or characters felt too indulgent to me. For example, if we establish up front that the character Karla has very pretty green eyes, we could cut pages upon pages of description regarding those eyes, including:

I tried once more to find the words for the foliant blaze of her green eyes. I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of island seas. But the living emerald in Karla’s eyes, made luminous by the sunflowers of gold light that surrounded the pupils, was softer, far softer.

The green of lagoons, where shallow water laps at golden sand.

The green that trees are, in vivid dreams. It was the green that the sea would be, if the sea were perfect.

I also considered some lines pretty nothings: aptly phrased but I disagree with the sentiment - such as the line: “I’d been a man who committed crimes...rather than a criminal, and there’s a difference.” A tempting thought, but ultimately what sounds to me like fanciful self-justification. However, other lines struck me just the right way. Here are a few of my favorites:

I was too young, then, to know that dead lovers are the toughest rivals.

Some women cry easily. The tears fall as gently as fragrant raindrops in a sun-shower, and leave the face clear and clean and almost radiant. Other women cry hard, and all the loveliness in them collapses in the agony of it.

There are few things more discomfiting than a spontaneous outburst of genuine decency from someone you’re determined to dislike for no good reason.

Good soldiers are defined by what they can endure, not by what they can inflict.

I think I could divide the book about half/half into insights I like and admire vs. those that had me either rolling my eyes or mentally ranting my disagreement. I do want to call attention, though, to the fact that I had consistently strong reactions rather than apathy.

I often found the story’s tone a little too sentimental for my taste. The primary romance plotline falls under the love at first sight category and is portrayed in larger than life terms that I ultimately find more cheesy than stirring. The sentimental isn’t confined to the romance either. A particular garment is portrayed as one of God’s finest works, gestures as windows to universal human emotion, and a bear’s growl called eloquent. A boy wins a fight by staring shame into his opponent until they embrace instead. I might connect with the underlying mentality of some of these things, but find the execution too over the top to take seriously.

I mentioned the word “longwinded” earlier. I am a big believer in the concept that less is more. I suspect this story could be told equally well (or possibly better) in about a third of the length. It’s a hefty tome at over a 1,000 pages. I feel that when an author asks a reader to invest more time in his or her work, each extra page should add something. I don’t mind length when I agree the story shouldn’t be trimmed, but in this case I felt SHANTARAM needed some brutal editing. For that matter, often the author puts forth a beautiful, admirable metaphor...only to repeat the same point twenty more times with varying metaphors. (Karla’s pretty green eyes serve as a prime example.) There’s also a lot of “if I knew then what I know now” foreshadowing that I find unnecessary. I will admit, though, that this lengthy book reads much faster than one might expect, likely in no small part because there is an engaging story at its core.

I haven't even touched on what the story’s about yet besides India (which is indeed primarily what it’s about). This epic, sprawling tale follows a man who escaped his lengthy sentence in Australian prison for armed robberies and then fled to India where he meets an assortment of interesting people and ultimately falls in with a group of intelligent and ruthless Indian gangsters. You only need to read the brief author biography at the end of the novel to realize this is a fictionalized autobiography, which invites plenty of speculation on the line between truth and fiction.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed this book throughout but it wasn’t until the end when I started understanding why some adore it so much. About three quarters of the way through this 1,000 page novel a few unexpected twists change the context of everything you have read so far.

Sadly, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic ending, especially for such a huge book. It’s the kind that feels more like trailing off than ending. Sometimes that works perfectly for a story, but after all the disparate elements I encountered in SHANTARAM I hoped for an end that found a little more connection between various plotlines.

In summary, a complex yet average story made noteworthy by an abundance of unique characters and a consuming passion for India . There’s not much structure to the plot more than “and then this happened,” but the story features a wealth of themes, relationships, and declarations that could each provoke hours of debate.