4/10/12 Okay, this is the longer review. The added bit follows the dashed line ---
I learned about this outstanding book and its brilliant author from ...more4/10/12 Okay, this is the longer review. The added bit follows the dashed line ---
I learned about this outstanding book and its brilliant author from Catie’s wonderful review and blog post. Yes, I should have known about it many years ago, but this was a gap in my experience. To make up for lost time, I now have the boxed-set series of 5 books for my family.
This is a wonderful adventure story for children - one that speaks to them as adults, and conveys a bundle of important life-concepts without getting weighed down by them.
It is also a great book for re-acquainting adults with the potentials of life - and the critical importance of faith - even as we deal with hard and often scary realities.
My review won’t be nearly as good as Catie’s - in part because she has read the book from both a child’s and an adult’s perspective, and in part because she just writes fabulous reviews (not to mention the artist renderings!). However, I will follow Catie's suggestion and focus mainly on my perspective as an adult, reading this for the first time. -------------------------
At one level, this is a delightful - but harrowing - children’s adventure in a science fictional setting. The story is centered around a strong, smart girl named Meg, and her intuitively wise and precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace. The interplay between these two is a beautiful thing to see.
Charles Wallace: “It’s being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inad—inadvertently. That’s a good word, isn’t it? I got Mother to look it up in the dictionary for me.”
The narrative very cleverly promotes timeless values of family, loyalty and love. It also edges the reader toward a growing realization - that perseverance is critical to success in any difficult endeavor. It is the kind of book that you really want your kids to read and understand, and to come back to as they get older.
Meg: This has been the most impossible, the most confusing afternoon of my life, she thought, yet I don’t feel confused or upset anymore; I only feel happy. Why?
At another level this is a story for adults, but told from a child’s perspective. The adult story, when you step back and think about it, is a circle of ideas that are connected and interdependent. Within that circle are knowledge - what we know and what we don’t; reasoning to solve problems, even when you are too scared to think clearly; the importance of faith - that there are answers, even when you can’t see them; and a related kind of faith, that you can and must act without knowing some of the most critical facts.
Charles Wallace got his look of probing, of listening. I know that look! Meg thought suddenly. Now I think I know what it means! Because I’ve had it myself, sometimes, doing math with Father, when a problem is just about to come clear...
This is all grownup stuff, the sort of thing that philosophers have trundled on about for millennia. But the lessons here are concepts for living, simply stated, and at their core are simple truths that are easily lost in the day-to-day. We humans know a great deal, about a great many things, and (like Meg) we can reason our way through tough challenges to a brighter future. But arrogance about our knowledge can lead us to think we are masters of all around us. In the book, experiments with tesseracts are a great example. The experiments are in a noble cause, but they lead down a very dark path. In the bigger picture we know pathetically little, and all our knowledge is but a tiny scratch on the surface of what IS.
What she saw was only the game Mrs Whatsit was playing; it was an amusing and charming game, a game full of both laughter and comfort, but it was only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs Whatsit could be.
And here is the critical point that is so well expressed in the narrative. We have to take our pathetically limited knowledge, and our dangerous arrogance, and get on with it. And when we fail, or things go wrong, we get angry and point fingers, just as Meg does here. As our brains scream about fears and anger, and point us in a lot of wrong directions, we have to pull ourselves together and move forward, using our limited working knowledge and accepting that we have to find answers as we go along. All of this involves faith, of different sorts and in shifting applications.
“What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.”
“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?” “Yes.” Mrs Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
In short, all of us must proceed into the darkness and reach for the light. For me, reading as an adult, that is what this book was all about.
My skin is still crawling when I think about this book, days after finishing it. Extremely well written, creepy, and mesmerizing - this was my first e...moreMy skin is still crawling when I think about this book, days after finishing it. Extremely well written, creepy, and mesmerizing - this was my first experience of reading a John Fowles book, and I will definitely read more of them.
I got onto this one after reading the excellent review by Bonnie, which I strongly recommend. She said it much better than I could.
Fowles makes very skillful use of first-person points of view here, alternating between the two main characters from one section of the book to the next. For me as a male reader, it was extremely painful to watch the male collector's thought process as his hideous plan evolves - a bit like being pushed, with feet skidding, to the edge of a cliff and then over.
But what really sticks with me from his POV is the incremental logic of his story, and the way each new development just falls into place in his severely twisted mind. I kept wondering how anyone could possibly think that way, and the next bit of monologue kept providing all-too-logical answers. Logical, that is, if one is missing some crucial bits of the normal mindset, like conscience and empathy and such.
The female POV was much more complex, and initially more confusing. I sorted my thoughts on these sections after some very helpful discussions with Bonnie and Wendy. In the end, I saw the series of transitions in her character as a kind of calculated and rational desperation. Along the way, she suffered increasingly severe effects of chronic sensory deprivation. These were overlaid by societal and class-conscious attitudes that colored her musings as she struggled to find a way out.
This is a gripping story, very highly recommended for those who can handle a crawl through the darkness.(less)
Absolutely mesmerizing. I took a long time to read it, partly because of other things that were going on, but mostly because I insisted on savoring ev...moreAbsolutely mesmerizing. I took a long time to read it, partly because of other things that were going on, but mostly because I insisted on savoring every sentence. I never would have found this book if not for GR friends. Come to think of it, almost every book that I read now came from a favorites list of a friend or someone I follow.
This book is a lights-out masterpiece, one of the greatest novels I have ever read. Without getting into the plot details, I will just say that the story is complex but, ultimately, quite simple in its basic form. Written in and about Stalinist Russia, it uses multiple layers of dramatic intrigue to paint vivid images of all-too-frail men (and women), and all-too-powerful forces that transform their lives in good ways and bad. Incredibly entertaining, gripping, frightening, and funny - the author plays with the reader, leading him/her this way and that, twisting the reader's mind as it does likewise with the characters.
Put simply, an incredible book. The multi-form Russian names are always a challenge, as readers of Tolstoy and the other greats will know very well. But for this one, the names are as much fun as every other element of this masterful tale. Highest possible recommendation.(less)
For me, the first two-thirds of this book were really, really tedious, if you want to know the truth. One star for that section. I'm not kidding.
The...moreFor me, the first two-thirds of this book were really, really tedious, if you want to know the truth. One star for that section. I'm not kidding.
The last third revealed enough of Holden Caulfield's pain and inner struggle to give me some sense of the depth of his character. Major scenes with a former teacher and his kid sister were very well done. Three stars for this section.
Overall, I know this is a 'classic' but it certainly didn't read that way for me. I really enjoyed Franny and Zooey when I read it many years ago - I want to look it over again for a current comparison. This one left me mired in the pit, with no ladder. That killed me, it really did.
As the many positive reviews attest, this is a book with a strong spiritual appeal for many readers. I read it in college and found it very powerful,...moreAs the many positive reviews attest, this is a book with a strong spiritual appeal for many readers. I read it in college and found it very powerful, even life-changing. Reading it again in my later years, I am probably even more impressed. What really struck me this time around was Hesse’s near-magical ability to do the thing that Siddhartha says cannot be done:
"Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish... Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it."
Hermann Hesse wrote these words (in German) for Siddhartha to say, and as a teacher I understand and believe them. But the genius of this book (and others by Hesse) lies in his ability, as a Westerner, to portray the wisdom of Eastern thought. He does this with surpassing skill and beauty, even in the English translation. As a result, the reader is given an open door to see the wisdom by reading the words, thinking through the message and (gradually) understanding how the pieces fit together.
This is not easy for most of us – consider two of the key passages:
"What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find."
"Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal."
Go ahead and admit it – those sound a little foolish, don't they? Now try these:
"I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value."
"It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect."
I wouldn’t want to run for office in America today on a platform like that. But didn’t Jesus make very similar statements? Here is one more:
"No, a true seeker, one who truly wished to find, could accept no doctrine. But the man who has found what he sought, such a man could approve of every doctrine, each and every one, every path, every goal; nothing separated him any longer from all those thousands of others who lived in the eternal, who breathed the Divine."
The Dalai Lama made a very similar statement in an interview that I saw.
And finally, the clear statement about true wisdom:
"Within Siddhartha there slowly grew and ripened the knowledge of what wisdom really was and the goal of his long seeking. It was nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life."
So there it is – a secret art of thinking, a peace within. Another way of saying it is “a peace that passeth all understanding”. And that may sound familiar.
If you already know this peace, and live it, then Siddhartha has nothing further to teach you. Unless, that is, your peace is someone else’s war. But maybe you are like most of us who, at least some of the time, feel a war raging both within ourselves and with others. If you are ready for that war to stop, then this is one book that may help you to reach a cease fire. As my colleague likes to say, it is all about letting go. (less)