**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Four and a half out of five stars; The Martian is the surprisingly upbeat tale of a person who survives for years after bei**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Four and a half out of five stars; The Martian is the surprisingly upbeat tale of a person who survives for years after being accidentally stranded on Mars. The book is engaging, positive, and makes you remember to take stock of what you have (literally), especially when things are at their darkest.
The Martian is yet another book that I came to only after having already seen the big-screen adaptation. The movie was good, clean fun, and as a result I wanted to read the source material for the script. I was not disappointed.
Andy Weir accomplished multiple near-impossible tasks with his book: he created a work of fiction that feels like it could one day soon be fact, he wrote a tale that emphasizes math and science without getting boring, and he presents a story that should be loaded with depression and despair in a way that is hopeful and uplifting. And he did all of this while maintaining and heightening an air of suspense in the novel that never dissipated, even though I had seen the movie first and knew how everything ended. Reading the book, I knew that Mark Watney had to be saved, but despite this plot armor I groaned at every mishap and practically cheered out loud with every success. The tension lasts throughout the book, and it's really only when Mark is finally back onboard his ship with his crew mates that I was finally able to breathe again.
As full disclosure, I'm not a huge science fiction reader, but that was the final thing that I found impressive about The Martian. I didn't have to be a huge sci-fi fan to enjoy it, and quite honestly, it was the humanity of the story that I personally felt made the book a compelling read. Mark was stranded and alone, facing near-certain starvation unless he got killed by some other mishap first, and yet he still remained calm. He simply took stock of what he had available, got creative with how to repurpose the things he had at his disposal, and kept his mind actively engaged and positive. That's a pretty good mantra for life, whether you're stuck on Mars or just trying to make it through to the next paycheck back here on Earth!
A final note: The Kindle version of the book had a Q+A with the Andy Weir after the story was complete, and I loved how he described his writing process. He started with his passion for both science and writing and from there, as Weir describes it, the story came together as he daydreamed horrible scenarios for a really unlucky astronaut. Beyond the actual story creation, he describes how he posted the novel in serial format to his website, built an audience, and eventually published on Amazon before he ever got an agent, a book deal, and of course, movie rights. His story is a dream scenario in and of itself for a writer, and was some cool "bonus footage" to read through after the novel was complete. The Martian was a great read from beginning to end, and is highly recommended for anyone who loves space, sci-fi, or just a really fun story.
**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Three stars out of five; The Far Field is a tale that has the potential to be awe-inspiring, just like the landscape of the**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Three stars out of five; The Far Field is a tale that has the potential to be awe-inspiring, just like the landscape of the region in which it is set, but ultimately fails to deliver on its promise, mainly due to how unlikeable the main character comes across.
In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to learn about the Kashmir region that lies in Northern India, directly adjacent to both Pakistan and China. The area, lying in the Himalayas, has been the scene of often intense fighting during this time. Myriad factors play into this animosity, ranging from historical grievances to nationalism to religious intolerance. But when you throw in the fact that all three of the countries I mentioned above are nuclear armed, these factors raise the region's issues to a level of critical international importance.
With this in mind, I have always been interested in learning more about the region from the perspective of those who live there. News reports can only get one so far in this respect, so it was with a great deal of excitement that I found The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. The book chronicles the travels of an Indian woman as she travels from her posh, urban existence and into the mountains of Kashmir as she searches for an old friend of her deceased mother. The book has all of the elements in place for a coming-of-age story or, at the very least, an amazing journey in an exotic land. The personal growth of the main character, Shalini, is seems guaranteed.
The first half of the book was amazing; Shalini is painted as a lost soul, grieving for her dead mother by miring herself in a haze of debauchery, drinking, and pointless, even self-destructive, relationships. She hits the nadir of her existence when she loses her job; at this point she impetuously decides to set out on a search for Bashir Ahmed, a clothes salesman from Kashmir who had come to build up a long-term relationship with Shalini and her mother. The writing to this point is excellent, and I practically felt like I was getting on the train with Shalini as she finally escaped Bangalore.
As she searches for Bashir Ahmed, Shalini spends time in the mountains with two different families and learns more about the troubles they have faced. She learns that the rosy picture painted by her government of the people and the situation in Kashmir is greatly at odds with her personal experiences; from the standpoint of the villagers, and in particular the Muslim villagers, the Indian Army has bred a great deal of resentment through their heavy handed actions. The stage was set for Shalini to finally have an experience that would help her understand the world.
And it's at this point that the book fell flat. Shalini never seems to grow as a person; instead, she comes across as a spoiled rich girl in a poor and unforgiving land. She claims to admire the strength of one of her most staunch supporters, while at the same time being nearly unable to restrain her desire for her host's husband. She constantly thinks of how her mother would have handled situations, but then never acts on those thoughts. She accuses village elders and Indian Army officials alike of acting improperly, but never seems to have a full enough understanding of the very complicated situation in which she finds herself to be able to make these types of judgments. When she makes decisions, she seems to have an almost Costanza-like ability to make exactly the wrong choice. Fortunately for her, this never seems to hurt her, but it's unfortunate for everyone around her who has to bear the consequences of her poor choices. And finally, there's an absolutely ludicrous scene near the end of the book where, as a reader, I have to wonder if Shalini is either the most naive person ever committed to paper, a sociopath, or just simply not very smart.
That's not to say that the book is not well written or that the story is not compelling; I dare say that a writer has to be fairly skilled to get me to feel so strongly about a character and her family, and in this case my emotions ran negative. This is why I gave the book three stars instead of a one- or two-star rating. By the time I was done I felt like I had just finished reading the Indian version of The Catcher in the Rye, another book wherein the protagonist is a spoiled rich kid who goes on a journey and learns nothing.
Near the end of the book there's a scene where Shalini attempts to call the first family she stayed with in her journey. They have an interlocutor call her back, and he tells her to never call that number again, that no one wants to talk to her. And that's how I found myself feeling about the character: after spending the story with Shalini, I never want to hear from her again.