Sunday, July 31, 2011

Failed Book Review

I have failed.

I did not complete this book.

Finishing books I've started has always been an unwritten law for me. If I start one, I have to finish it.
It's only been recent (in the last five years or so) that I've allowed myself to not finish a book. I had conceded that my time was precious and that if I was not riveted to what I was reading ... it was OK to stop.

So, I didn't complete "Desperately Seeking Paradise." I purchased it at that great Mecca of booksellers: Powell's City of Books with the understanding that it was a memoir. What originally sold me on it was the quote on the back by James Buchan of the Guardian. He said, "Desperately Seeking Paradise draws on an old Muslim literary tradition in which a man sets out from home and friends, ostensibly to make his pilgrimage to Mecca, but really to indulge his spiritual restlessness ... add some British-Indian blokery and some slapstick, and you will have some idea of the scope and charm of Desperately Seeking Paradise. Interspersed through these adventures are meditations on episodes in Islamic history and other political and religious movements."

A memoir, right?

No. Not really. This was more an odyssey of the author's spiritual enlightenment. Which, I have to say, I don't know if he ever found. My guess is no. I stopped reading about 50 pages from the end.

I just couldn't get past the poor man's angst.

I mean. I have angst, too. Or, I used to. And I went through a soul searching time where I discovered my personal brand of spirituality, but ... it only took me a few years ... maybe a whole ten to get fully solidified in it so that I wasn't even thinking of it anymore. It was just a natural extension of me. But this guy took many decades. It was painful to slog through. No offense to him. I'm sure it was important work for him to do ... probably.

Have you ever had a friend that could never get over a wrong that was done to him or her? Or one that sat in bitter victimhood instead of moving forward and using their misfortune to make a difference? For instance, maybe a woman's sister died of leukemia and forever after runs marathons to raise money for the Foundation to research a cure. Or maybe becomes an oncologist. Those would be examples of using your anger and sadness and grief and passion towards something good. Something healthy.

Well, I had a friend once that had some of that persnickity misfortune, and he dealt with it the best he knew how. Obviously. But while I remained friends with this person, he seemed to be so immersed in his bitterness that every time we got together, "somehow" the topic of his misfortune and all the wrong that had been done to his family, his friends, and neighbors came up. It was all very dramatic. And exhausting. And I never saw him do anything about it.

I didn't fault him for talking about it. Of course you need to tell your story and get it off your chest. That's how you start to heal. And I don't fault him for being angry, or even feeling victimized. In fact, I don't fault him for anything. But I will say it was challenging to be around him for long periods of time.

While the author of this book didn't play the victim, and he definitely took every opportunity to go on adventures and work hard and help his brothers and the ummah, and he definitely tried everything in his power to make a difference, I just couldn't stomach the constant restlessness and angst. He was always so disappointed and at odds with the way Islam was being "defined" around him. It seemed to me that he kept looking for a mentor, someone that would tell him what to do to settle his soul and dissatisfaction. And -- as far as I know -- he never found one. Everyone he encountered ultimately disappointed him because of this particular "leader's" view on ... women, or revolution, or ... the best way to connect with God.

I admit that it is quite likely I have just missed the point of this book because, well, I'm not Muslim, and I'm of European descent -- different culture completely. I understand that those two things could throw off my whole perspective regarding this book. Also, and this is my bad, since I went into the book assuming it was a memoir (even though the book's category is clearly stated on the back: Religion/Politics), I was stalled a lot of time with all the history that is woven in. PLUS, (chagrin) I only speak English -- for which I fault my lack of self-discipline and our country's educational system -- and that made following all the Arabic words thrown in a little difficult.  Though I must say, Sardar did a brilliant job in explaining any non-English word he included.

So with the combination of almost constant religious angst, lots and lots of non-English names, a million dates, and a book packed with flash backs upon flash backs coupled with giant leaps forward in the author's lifetime -- in the end,  I just couldn't follow it. I found myself skimming the pages, and that is a sure sign for me to put the book down and try something new.

In conclusion, I recommend this book.

Yes. You heard me. I recommend this book.

He writes well, there are some charming stories/memories (I especially like the way he purchased a donkey saddle, and the tea story), and if you love history, you'll totally get off on this book.

Because that's really what it is. It's a history book. Albeit his history. But also the history of Islam.

So, if you like good writing, already know about Islam and like history .... bring it on. Read this book.

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