Anyone who knows me, knows how much I like to read. Reading is my greatest hobby. There are many things I like to do–draw, play the piano, tennis, re-purpose furniture–but I give so little time to these others, because the pull of a good book outweighs them all. So, over the course of my (gasp) almost forty years, I have devoured many, many books. I bleed my favorite authors dry, and then must find new ones to take their place. As a result, I am always looking for book recommendations. There is nothing worse than pulling a random book of the shelf because you have no idea what to try next–more often than not, you end up with something mediocre or even down right awful. So, I have made it a practice to have several of my friends and acquaintances who also like to read, pass on their recommendations. Typically, if one of them passes on a book, it’s worth reading.
But, sometimes, what one person thinks is excellent, another finds abysmal. Usually, these differences make sense. Perhaps someone tends to expect something different out of their books and movies. Perhaps they are just very different from yourself. Perhaps their education level, background, etc. is different. All of these things make quantifiable sense.
But sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason to the difference of opinion. Take my brother for example. He and I were raised in the same home, have the same education level, share many similar interests–and yet we consistently disagree on movies. If he tells me I’m going to hate it, I know there is a good chance I’m going to truly enjoy it, and vice versa. It boggles my mind. I don’t understand it, but we just don’t agree.
“The Gracekeepers,” by Kirsty Logan, was just such an example. It came to me highly recommended by a friend who has never steered me wrong, so I was looking forward to something great. Unlike my brother, this friend and myself seem to consistently coincide on our literary opinions, so I felt pretty confident that I was in for something good. Unfortunately, this was one of those other occasions. What she thought was great, I thought was terrible.
Fifty pages into the book, I had to tell myself to hang in there, it was bound to get better…100 pages in, I was still feeling, well, downright bored–but I trusted my friend, so I kept going. By page 150 I had resigned myself to reading a book that I thought was really, really bad, because I was determined to try to figure out what about the book made my friend highly recommend it , so I plodded along waiting for some redeeming factor to pop out at me–it never did. In my opinion, the book was quite simply, really that bad-an utter disaster.
I found myself critiquing the book as I read. Boring. If I had to sum it up in one word, that would be it. The plot itself was weak. There just wasn’t a whole lot going on. This can be forgiven with a well written character driven book, which I would assume was the goal of the author, but her characters weren’t even likable, which makes it hard to succeed as a character driven book. If I don’t like the characters, I don’t have a vested interest in what happens to them–and I didn’t. Good or bad, I felt myself reacting indifferently to the fates of the characters. The only character I liked in the entire book was Red Gold, and he was a supporting character with a fairly minor role. Add to this the long descriptions and, well, I’m back to that word again–bored.
One of my other big hang ups was the tendency of the author to bring up an idea and to leave it dangling, undeveloped. This can be seen largely with her idea of the selkie, which, though integral to certain main ideas in the plot, is never explained or developed. The clowns would be another example–intriguing premise–angry, anarchist clowns…so develop them already! Or how about the revival boats–potential for some intrigue and corruption, but barely touched on–what was the point of their introduction at all?! All of these were interesting concepts that were introduced, but the author failed to develop them. Had she, I think my response to the whole book likely would have been different.
As I finished the book, still looking for what anyone could have seen to praise about this novel, I summed up the problems in this way: this was a good initial draft. It had good bones. Her world had potential. Her characters, with a little bit of work and development, could have been intriguing–I think (she really needed to work on the likability factor). It was a good start to a novel, but not a good novel, not even a mediocre novel, as it stands, it was a downright boring novel that I would not recommend to anyone.
So I went back to my friend (remember, she had never steered me wrong) and asked her what it was about this novel that she felt like made it so good. She told me she had difficulty putting it into words and instead directed me to a book review done by NPR.
I read the review, and disagreed with it on every point that was made. I was left to conclude that the book reviewer was either a) sleeping with the author (quite unlikely) b) very unfamiliar with the dystopian genre and so had nothing to compare this book to (it fell so far below what that genre has to offer) or c) he was told that he was required to make a positive review of the book and so spun the little the book had to offer in the best possible light that he could.
No matter which way I take it, the book review was not an accurate assessment of the book (imop). So, why did my friend like it and recommend it? She could have easily come to the same conclusions I had, so why didn’t she?
Perhaps she really did like the book. Perhaps there was some merit in the tale that I failed to see though I looked so patiently for it. After all, my brother, whom I previously mentioned, I happen to believe is one of the most intelligent fellows out there, and he tends to disagree with me about the merits of so much that we watch/read. I tend to think he’s wrong, but I think he would say the same about me. Sometimes, people just have vastly different opinions. Is that this case here? Very possibly.
However, I can’t help but wonder if there is another possibility, something different. The power of suggestion. My friend loves NPR–she trusts NPR. If NPR said it was good, well it must be good (never mind the fact that I suspect, if she was completely honest with herself she would have admitted that she found it boring). NPR said it was an intelligent read, so it must be.
How often in life do we approach things like this? We respect something or someone, so we simply accept their opinion. We don’t weigh it, consider it, ask ourselves what we think, we just accept it at face value. I know I’ve done it. I’m told a movie is good, so I go in prepared for a good movie. I’m told a movie is horrible, so I don’t watch it. Someone I regard highly tells me a book is compelling, so I go into it, looking to be compelled. A professor tells me that this is a fact, and I accept it–without checking the facts, without seeing for myself if what he says is true.
There have been many movies that I have dragged my heels to watch because I was told they were horrible, but when I actually watched them myself, I found them to be entertaining…the power of suggestion kept me away from the movie, but when I assessed it myself, my opinion didn’t agree with the review. I think this is pretty common if we’re honest with ourselves.
I think as a society we are becoming sloppy. Instead of figuring out what we think, and what we believe, we simply absorb what we are told to believe. It happens with politics (whether it be the ABC channels and NPR or Fox News and talk radio), it happens with religion (all of them–not just some), it happens as we absorb what our parents, teachers, professors, Imams, Pastors, Rabbis, political leaders, professionals, etc. tell us what we should believe. It is easier to just say, “I trust you, therefore I will believe what you tell me to believe.” I call it the sheeple mentality. It is so much easier to be a sheep, so much more comfortable than taking the time to find out the truth for ourselves.
For me, this book was a reminder. I am not going to follow the masses. I will not believe something because I am told it is so. I will weigh and assess, and determine what I believe for myself. I trust my parents, but they are only human. I respect my husband, but he is not always right. I believe my pastor is a good and godly man, but he is still just a man. If I am going to be wrong about something, I want to know that I at least did due diligence–that I did all I could to determine what I believed, what I actually thought about it, so that the fault of wrong belief would indeed be mine, but mine made in honest error–not error out of the laziness of simply parroting what I am told to feel, think, or believe. I know I have done this, many times, and I want to do better, not give into the easy way.
It is an easy trap to fall into, and we all fall into it in the mundane issues of our life as well as the large monumental ones. I want to be mindful of the influence that others wield over me and my beliefs. I want my beliefs to truly be my own. And I know that means that I have to be very mindful of the influence of others on me and my beliefs.
In what areas of your life is this you? Why do you believe what you believe? Do you really know what you believe?