Monday, January 11, 2010

Dear Rose City Reader . . .

A reader in distress! 

My friend is in a quandary over a book her uncle gave her to read. It's not just any book -- it's a 900+ page tome he told her is his favorite book. She has now slogged her way through 200 pages, but it has been a battle, as she describes so eloquently below. 

I'm still pondering what advice to offer. Any suggestions? We've all been in her predicament -- what would you tell her?

Dear Rose City Reader:

As a follower of your blog, I trust that you'll appreciate my angry book rant and related dilemma:

My uncle and I, who really only see each other once a year at our family reunion, have a great tradition of exchanging book titles. He loves to read and discuss books - if we had an opening for a sincere and enthusiastic 60 year old Canadian guy in our all-girl book club, he might consider moving to Portland. He is so jealous of me.

I confess I haven't read all of his picks yet, but I do keep track of them on a running list. This last August, he not only gave me titles but two actual hard copies of "favorites" of his - one in particular that he positively raved about. I am reading it now... it's a 900+ page behemoth called "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts. I didn't balk at the length starting in, in fact I was kind of excited about a long, rich novel because he had raved about it so. But I am only a little over 200 pages in, and feeling like I have the equivalent of 7,000 pages to go rather than a measly 700. Basically I am using it to put myself to sleep at night. All my efforts to make friends with this book have failed.

The author is an Aussie who went off the deep end at some point in his young adulthood and committed a series of armed robberies, landed in prison, escaped from prison, lived as a fugitive for many years and ended up in Bombay where he started a medical clinic in the slums, bought and sold on the black market and got mixed up in the Indian mafia... and that just so happens to be exactly the life story of the "fictional" main character of the book. So for one thing... REALLY? But even if I could get past that, there is still the question of how, with subject matter like that, has the author managed to create a book so boring???

The story has the potential to be an intriguing page turner ripe with opportunity to explore the events and impact of a completely different kind of life than I will ever live... but somehow I find myself more excited about folding my kids' laundry than reading this book. It contains a mix of laborious travel journal, predictable philosophical musings, unsatisfying character sketches, and in the 200 pages I've read so far, tragically minimal plot or movement. There are entire paragraphs and passages that I just want to cross out in frustration, asking "why in the world did I need to know ANY of that?"

Case in point: "Abdullah rejoined us, bringing a cut-glass bowl filled with slices of mango, papaya, and watermelon. The scents of the fruits surrounded us as their tastes dissolved in our mouths. The singers began their next performance, singing just one song that continued for almost half and hour. It was a lush, tripartite harmony built upon a simple melody and improvised cadenzas." You've got to be kidding me. The protagonist has been whisked away in a car with two well-known mafia/assassin big-guys in Bombay, and he is unsure of the reason for their interest in him, and yet the author-who-is-actually-the-main-character dilly-dallies over the damn fruit bowl and the background music for an entire paragraph. Let me go back and read that again - was that CUT glass, you say? Did the tastes of the fruit dissolve in your mouth, or was it more of a melting sensation? Was there any pineapple? You didn't mention pineapple, but there could have been pineapple in the cut-glass bowl as well... Was it the song that lasted half an hour, or was it this plodding miscellany? It's beyond ridiculous. He chronically over-describes everything enough to make you think he was getting a kickback from his high school English teacher for each metaphor used.

The one saving grace is that the main-character-who-is-really-the-author meets and befriends a charming Bombay tour guide named Prabaker, and the dialogue between the two is hilarious. The accent and grammar are captured so well - I would guess a lot of it is taken directly from actual conversations with the real-life Prabaker. Prabaker's efforts to understand the crazy Aussie and to help the crazy Aussie understand Indian culture are priceless, and the affectionately nicknamed "Prabu" is described with respect and genuine care. I find myself especially fond of dear "Prabu," and sadly he has not been prominently featured in the last 50 pages or so. I miss him terribly.

So, Rose City Reader, I would very much appreciate your opinion or at least your commiseration. Here's my dilemma... I am 200+ of 900 pages in, with no sense that this book is actually going to go anywhere. Aside from Prabaker, I am completely over it. I could easily just put it down and move on to a Sylvia Plath for a little pick-me-up. Except for... my sweet uncle. He loved it! And he knows I'm reading it. And because books are a key element of our relationship, I would love to be able to talk with him about it. Even if I don't ever like the book, it would still be nice to know the full story arc and talk with him about the parts I did like. If I don't finish it, I won't be able to fully appreciate his insights and why he liked it so much vs. why I didn't. I know he would not be devastated if I didn't read it, but I do think it would make him kind of sad. I just don't know if I can make myself slog through it! My recreational reading time is so rare and precious, I feel like I am throwing it away on this book. But I'm also a big "finish what you start" type... Oh, the contradictions plague me like the relentless monsoons which fall from a slate-colored sky to form rivulets meandering like restless wanderers through the poorly planned avenues of the illegal slums of Bombay which sprung up during the construction of the city's tallest skyscrapers like bamboo shoots reaching thirstily toward the very source of the aforementioned monsoon rains... help!

-- Nervous Niece


  1. I've looked the book up on Goodreads, and it seems like most of the people who have read it have the same issues with the book. One even states that they gave up after 200 pages.

    My advice is that honesty is always the best policy. I'd say to be gentle when discussing what you didn't like about it (and maybe try to find a few redeeming qualities to talk about).

    Or you can always use the excuse of "I'm just not in the right place to read this now. Maybe in a few years it might appeal to me more."

    It's really tough when someone you respect highly likes a book that you just can't stand.

    I hope that things turn out well and that your uncle is not offended.

  2. I was going to be lazy and say "just skim the rest" but I like Alyce's answer of "I'm not in the right place to read this right now". Although, that implies that you *will* read it at some point and it may be followed with mentions of the book each year and a load of guilt.

    I have to say that if I was a brave person, I would take the copy back next year and tell the darling uncle that it just wasn't your thing and that you honestly tried to get through it but you hope he can find someone else to share and enjoy it with.

  3. Alyce & Kristen -- Good advice! Thanks. I like both the "not in the right place" and the "pass it on" ideas.

  4. My friend Deborah left this comment on the facebook link to this post:

    My only advice would be for Nervous Niece to start her own blog. Call it "The year of reading the book she couldn't not read." That was so well written. I'd rather follow her around for a year than Julie Powell.

    Thanks Deborah!

  5. And Mary sent me this comment, from a professional's perspective:

    Dear Nervous Niece,

    Whoa, that's a predicament all right: But I think that because reading time is precious it's best to cut to the chase with your Uncle and tell him that it just wasn't for you, at this time, not to say you won't go back to it someday (probably not) but I would also ask him, what it was about the book that he found so compelling? Everyone has different tastes in reading, in anything. But with life being so damn short lest you waste precious reading time on something that you don't's not a true assignment, well, maybe an assignment of the heart. But if you keep reading what you prefer you'll have a richer conversation with him next year by being able to turn him on to a book or six that you really, really did love!

    Good luck with that,

    A person in publishing!

  6. I think I would advise her to continue reading it. This way if she continues to hate the book she can tell her uncle this with a fully formulated argument. Otherwise she leaves herself open to the "well you didn't get to the really good part" argument, and then will feel the same guilt to come back to the book after next years reunion.

    Also, sometimes books have a way of growing on you, granted it really shouldn't take more than 200 pages to do so.

    My two cents...

  7. This is why I loathe having people give me books unless I have asked for them. I'm hanging my head in shame as I remember reading The Da Vinci Code under similar circumstances.

    But if you love the person, you gotta read the book. What about engaging Uncle in a detailed discussion, with full disclosure that only 200 pages have been read so far, and hope that satisfies his desire to discuss and bond, and demonstates good faith. Ask a lot of questions about his take on it. Maybe then the remaining 700 pages can take a really long time to finish . . . like never?

  8. Personally, I thought Shantaram was awesome. But if it's not working for you in print, find a library copy on CD or a downloadable format and listen to it instead. It will still take a while, but you'll be multitasking.

  9. I'm with RCR, reading time is precious. We all have different tastes I don't see why you can't tell your uncle so.


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