By Hermann Hesse. This book is about the spiritual journey of a man named Siddhartha not the great Siddhartha, Buddha. Set in the times of Buddha, this story follows Siddhartha from a young age to his spiritual enlightenment. Born into a brahmin family, Siddhartha is well loved and well respected. He is a great student and learns quickly. Discontent with the teachings of brahmins from whom he feels that he has learned all that he can he decides to follow samanas – yogis – that are traveling through the forest. Getting permission from his father in his own stubborn way he leaves home with his good friend Govinda and follows the samanas into the forest and their way of life. After years of ascetic living Siddhartha is still restless, still searching for meaning when hears about the great one – Gotama. Meeting Gotama fills Siddhartha with awe but he quickly realizes that he cannot learn from the great one. He realizes that path to self-realization and spiritual enlightenment is unique to every person and that cannot be taught or learnt…it has to be experienced. After a brief encounter with Buddha he parts with his friend Govinda and leaves to find his own salvation.
Siddhartha realizes that while seeking Brahman he ignored his ‘self’ and that he cannot run away from himself if he truly wanted peace and enlightenment. He needs to know the secret of Siddhartha if he were to rid himself of the ‘self’. This awakening is the beginning of an arduous journey of self-discovery that finally leads him to true peace.
Hermann Hesse’s writing is simple yet beautiful. Although the story didn’t exactly capture me – being a Hindu the concepts of spiritual enlightenment and transcendence are not new to me and salvation through suffering is a way of life that is all too familiar with Hindus – I enjoyed the book. If spiritual quest is not your cup of tea then this book is not for you. It’s slow pace will make the reading difficult. It is, however, thought provoking and every one will get a different piece of wisdom out of this. My favorite take aways from this book are:
- You cannot be true by distancing yourself from your ‘self’…you need to embrace your ‘self’ to be true.
- Knowledge can be taught but wisdom cannot be – wisdom has to be experienced
By Jodi Picoult
This book – as the title suggests – is about a custody battle over a child named Faith…intentionally named since this book also explores Faith in God. Soon after her parents – Mariah and Colin – divorce Faith experiences visions where she sees God. God is described as wearing a long white robe and brown sandals with shoulder length hair. Mariah – a non-religious Jew – takes Faith to a psychiatrist when she starts quoting Bible. Having ruled out psychosis or attention seeking behavior the psychiatrist takes the case to a conference which makes Faith a celebrity in her small community. Media and pious Christians soon flock to Faith and Mariah’s farm house. When Faith supposedly resurrects her grand mother who is pronounced dead and suffers stigmata she gets the attention of wide spread media – especially Ian Fletcher who is an atheist and has a TV show that debunks religious myths – Catholic church and people hoping for miracles. Colin afraid for the safety of his child sues Mariah for child custody. The rest of the story is about the trial and who ends up “Keeping Faith”.
This book definitely kept my interest up and at some points I was really anxious about the turn of events but the ending disappointed me a great deal. The characters were also not well developed. Mariah is the main character and sometimes the story is told in first person by her. She suffers from depression and is even institutionalized for being suicidal. She is constantly second guessing herself as a parent and fears that since she is not good enough for her husband she is not good enough to be a mother. She falls apart after her divorce but pulls herself together when Faith starts having issues. If the author’s intention is for her rise above and beyond her self doubt and emerge as an emotionally strong person that is there for her daughter all the time then she fails to bring about that transformation in this character. The subplot of Mariah’s romance with Ian Fletcher – the same guy that was there to expose her as a fraud is soppy and makes her character look weak and needy.
Jodi Picoult builds up the plot to go in one direction when she brings in Manchausen by proxy syndrome and somatisation but she suddenly turns it around and leaves this whole plot hanging. I wish she had taken the plot along these lines and ended conclusively since she has been hinting right from the beginning that Mariah is prone to depression. I thought this was the beginning of unraveling of the mystery…that here comes the explanation for all the bizarre things even if the explanation was just that it was all a coincidence. But that does not happen…after pages and pages of court room trial and discussions with experts in Manchausen syndrome the judge gives custody to Mariah…just like that. And Faith supposedly at the death’s door just gets up and out of the hospital when Mariah goes in and holds her. The author explores many things – faith, God, love, motherhood – but does not tie up the many threads she introduces and while it may be a coincidence for all the miracles to happen around Faith – resurrecting her grandmother, healing an AIDS baby, an 80 year old woman waking up from coma, all the patients in Faith’s ICU floor suddenly cured etc. – it still does not explain stigmata. The reader is allowed to assume that it really happened especially after Faith says “God hurt her” and Mariah experiences a vision herself where God tells her “she isn’t in pain; I’m not doing it to her I’m doing it for her”.
I am not an atheist and I like ambiguous endings but for an open-for-your-interpretation-ending the plot should be complex and multi-layered and this book isn’t set up for that. A very loose plot, weak characters and an ending that literally asks readers to take a huge leap of faith. I should have guessed from the title what was required of me!
One of the hardest things for me to do is to walk into Barnes & Noble and walk out without buying anything. So I make all kinds of excuses to buy some thing. The excuses I made to buy this book:
- It won 2015 Pulitzer Prize and hence should be in my library…it won a literary award after all
- It was on sale – 30% off but 40% off for members and I am a member. Who doesn’t like a bargain?
- The book was on my reading list but lot of holds on the book in the library…who knows when I will get my hands on it?
So, I marched out of the store happy … and now that I read it I am so happy I bought the book. This is the first book of Anthony Doerr’s that I read and I enjoyed his writing style…the chapters were short and succinct, run in 3 parallel threads and they alternate between past and present. As a reader you, of course, know that the three threads will eventually converge but it was so nicely done. While reading this book I could not help but contrast it to the previous Pulitzer winner Gold Finch – where Donna Tartt prose was long and complicated – some of her sentences are as long as paragraphs and I had to read them several times to understand them – Doerr’s prose is simple and short – some of the sentences consist of just one word. I am not comparing the writers, nor am I saying that one book is better than the other but what stood out for me is the stark contrast between the two books that won Pulitzer prize in consecutive years.
The book is set in France and Germany during 1940s. It starts with the actual bombing of St.Malo, a historic walled city along the coast, and it revolves around Marie-Laure – a blind french girl – and Werner – an orphaned German boy who is a whiz at radio mechanics. The relationship between Marie-Laure and her father is extremely endearing … and how her father fosters the ability to be independent as she gradually goes blind is so heartwarming. How Werner’s love for radios steers his life and eventually crosses Marie-Laure’s path is the central plot of the book. Like I said, the reader will know that sooner or later the two will meet … and it makes the anticipation of the two paths converging all the more interesting. And for a second, you hold your breath – who would Werner betray? His country or his love for radio?
I personally would have liked the book to end 30 years before it did. And I personally did not like the chapters narrated by Marie-Laure’s father – I wanted to admire this character from far…did not want to get close to him for the fear of losing the mental image I had of this character.
A wonderful story narrated in hauntingly beautiful prose!