A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Personal Growth: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

SiddhartaSiddharta by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Siddhartha tells of the journey of one Siddhartha, a young man from the high Brahman caste who leaves his home and joins an ascetic sect (somewhat akin to followers of John the Baptist, or the Stoics) in a search for enlightenment. He is convinced there is one piece of knowledge that, once he finds it, will ease the feeling that there is something more his heart still wants. Hesse has carefully crafted each placid, melodiously repetitive sentence to lull you into a meditative calm while reading Siddhartha’s story. The revelations Siddhartha discovers throughout the book are a unique way of looking at the world, and this is an excellent story to start off a new year with.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?


No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Definitely one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve had to date. This is the fourth Salman Rushdie book I’ve read and I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t appreciate his writing. Which is unfortunate, because he’s very good. His work is descriptive and complex, with these long involved sentences which wind around you like a slightly malevolent, parasitic vine. But for some reason it all just leaves me feeling cold. It’s a personal failing, I guess.

Verses is an exercise in memory. You’ve got to keep track of everything that happens, every character and tidbit because Rushdie is going to work them all in again later on. It will also help if you have a thorough understanding of Islamic history, Indian history, and maybe brush up on current events from the time too, just in case? Riots factor in to the plot of the novel at one point, and I found myself wondering if Rushdie had invented them or was pulling from the evening news. It may have been a little of both, I could see him taking an actual riot and tweaking parts of it for the effect he wanted.

This novel was infamous when I was growing up. I remember seeing it mentioned constantly in news articles and magazines, banned in this country or that one as obscene. After its publication Rushdie spent just over a decade living under an alias, sharing secret houses with body guards and moving constantly, because the British government deemed the threat against him was that serious. Rushdie writes eloquently of this time in his memoir Joseph Anton, the name he took while living under the fatwa. It disturbs me to think that someone could write a work of fiction, even an offensive one, and have their life be endangered. Rushdie questions the origins of the Islamic religion and in return some question his right to keep breathing. How heartbreaking to think that there are people so terrified by dissension they will kill someone else to stop it. I’m a big fan of tolerance and acceptance for opposing viewpoints, but how do you tolerate someone who wants you to die because the things you think aren’t the same as the things they think? Or even worse, someone who wants you to die because somebody else told them that’s what they should want. Read the book! Be offended, if you find it offensive! But no killing. No death threats.

As a final aside, having read The Satanic Verses after Joseph Anton I kept seeing Chamcha as Rushdie himself, in a bizarre prediction of what his own life would become after Verses was published; he starts out plummeting towards the earth and spends the rest of the story struggling to put his life back together. I’d really recommend reading them both together because it adds so much more to the books when you have the background, and the similarities between the plot of Verses and Rushdie’s life after its publication are quite…novel. Assuming Rushdie didn’t fictionalize his memoir to play up those aspects, it’s very ironic that he almost became one of the characters from his own books. But please don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. Read them both yourself, and make up your own mind.

PS: While I didn’t think very highly of Joseph Anton when I first read it, having finished Verses I find I appreciate it more now. The additional backstory is worth the extra effort.

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Haroun and the Sea of StoriesHaroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was adorable! Creative and unique. A lovely book to read with your children about the power to freely discuss and criticize ideas. My understanding is that Rushdie wrote this for his son and I found myself reading the book seeing Rashid as Rushdie and Haroun as Rushdie’s son, which added a whole extra layer to their arguments. This was after reading Rushdie’s Joseph Anton a few years back; there was lots I’ve forgotten but bits and pieces of that autobiography kept surfacing in my head while I was reading Sea of Stories, mostly because in Joseph Anton Rushdie talks about writing this book. That’s what made me want to read it and I can assure you it does not disappoint.

I think my favourite part of Sea of Stories was Rushdie’s use of the constant arguments between his characters to make them into a united front against their enemy. They persevere because everyone criticized every aspect of the plan and they were allowed to be open about their concerns, not in spite of those disagreements. Considering Rushdie’s history with having fatwas laid on him for his criticism of major religions, it isn’t surprising that this message would be included in one of his books. (Or possibly all of them, I’ve only read a few.) The idea that thoughtful criticism could -or should- be punishable by death really needs to be eradicated from the universe as a whole. How can we possibly move forwards in compassion and love if no one is allowed to point out what we’re doing wrong? Or worse, if only certain people are allowed to say what we’re doing wrong? If we limit ourselves to only a small portion of the lived experience of the population, we’re demanding the world hobble itself for us and calling it devotion. How much do you miss if you’re on a journey and you keep your eyes closed half the time?

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Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Joseph AntonJoseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally published July 15th, 2014
I don’t know how you make a book about living under death threats for over a decade boring, but there it is. “Midnight’s Children” was enjoyable. This book dragged on forever. It was disconcerting reading in the third person all the time, knowing it was Rushdie writing the book. And (spoiler alert) near the end of the book he cheats on his third wife for the second time and tries to absolve himself of any responsibility for his actions by referring to it as some sort of “Illusion” he was under (and yes he capitalizes illusion). I lost a lot of my sympathy for him. I agreed completely with his stance on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and that people should be free to question and criticize authorities of all kinds, but I stopped empathizing with his main character at that point.

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A Passage to India by EM Forster

A Passage to IndiaA Passage to India by E.M. Forster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally published September 28th, 2014
I don’t know how I feel about this book. I’m grateful it was written in the 1920’s, and hopefully things in India are better now. Forster packs the whole novel with insights on human nature; well, for the men. He tends to dismiss his female characters as monochromatic and subtly blames them for India’s intractable problems with racism and colonialism. If the British women would just let go of their stubborn racist beliefs everything would be better. And if Indian women would just let go of their ridiculous, close-minded beliefs about proper behavior for women (yes, he really blames the women for the continuation of purdah in India), India would be in much better shape. So while I admired Forster’s insights and descriptions, his subtle sexism was wearing.

I know, I know. He’s a product of his times and so on and so forth. I live with sexism all the time, I don’t have to like it in created universes.

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