Wednesday, September 27, 2006

BOOKS: Spiritual Awakening for Dummies

I don't like to slag books, even books I didn't care for (except for you, Nanny Diaries; consider yourself officially on notice). It just seems like a dick thing to do. I mean, if someone else got something useful or beautiful out of a book -- or even if it just managed to distract them from their worldly cares for a few hours -- who am I to pee all over that?

I just realized that this is why it's taken me so long to write about the books I've read in the past month: I'm blocked because I don't want to sound like a dink about a particular book that, if sales are anything to reckon with, a lot of people really enjoyed. But a book blogger's gotta do what a book blogger's gotta do, so here goes.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven
by Mitch Albom (#31)
It took me a while to figure out why this book wasn't sitting well with me. At first I thought that maybe it was the overt sentimentality of the writing, but then I reminded myself that I like
Little Women and pretty much every kids' story about animals ever written, so I can stomach more than my share of literary treacle.

If you don't know the story, it's about an old man who dies in a tragic carnival accident (shush, you smartasses in the back row). As he travels through the afterlife, he meets five different people who had some impact on his life at different points in time, and through each of these encounters, he has an epiphany that helps him move forward. I won't tell you how it ends, but I'm sure you can figure it out.

In other words, it's your classic "this was your life" scenario, with the typical ensuing self-knowledge and redemption and sense that one's life was worthwhile and that even the bad things make sense in the grand scheme of things. And whatnot. Included in the "whatnot" is the reminder that all our lives are interconnected. There may also have been mention of a certain butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, though that might have just been implied.

If you sincerely got something out of this story, then bless you. Seriously. And I apologize if my thoughts offend you. But really, who the hell am I? Just some chick with some random opinions, which have no more value than your own. Remind yourself of that as you read the rest of this post.

Okay. So. What bugs me about this book is that I got to the end of it and was, like, "Well, duh. Am I to take it, Mr. Albom, that you are letting me know that self-acceptance is important? And forgiveness? Also important? And that everything happens for a reason? And that, while loss sucks, a person who finds love even once in their life is lucky? Really? You don't say."

And... okay. Let's take it as a given that, if you really think about it, pretty much ALL novels cover some variation on these themes. I'm fine with that. But most other novels -- well, the good ones, anyway -- tend to expound on these ideas in a way that is varied and complex and richly textured. They don't cover each theme in its own separate CHAPTER, so that we the readers can go down a mental checklist as we make our way through the book. Self-acceptance? Check. Tolerance? Check. Etcetera etcetera.

I also profoundly disagree with the notion that everything happens for a reason. To me, this has always seemed like a safe, facile tool to help us stomach the fact that terrible, mostrous, unspeakable things happen in this world. I sympathize with the need to rationalize bad things -- hey, I like to sleep at night as well as the next person -- but it's a dangerous way to think, and possibly a sign that truly horrible things have never happened to you.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven feels, to me, like a weird, uneasy hybrid of The Pilgrim's Progress and The Wealthy Barber... a sort of "Spiritual Awakening for Dummies." But I don't think Albom is a dummy. And I don't think that the millions of people who read this book are dummies (other than the statistically probable few). I just think that if you're looking for a novel to uplift and inspire you, you owe it to yourself to do better. We're all smarter than this.


Anonymous said...

"We're all smarter than this."


Corey said...

Bravo. I find Albom an incessantly irritating presence, the Robert James Waller of the 21st Century. I like old-fashioned entertainment and classic themes as much as anyone else, but Albom's writing just swims in treacle.

Carol Blymire said...

I haven't even wanted to read this book because every person I've seen reading it is the exact same type -- they love Oprah, they think Rachael Ray is spunky and great, the cried reading Bridges of Madison County, they shop at Chico's.... I could go on for weeks, but I won't. I also won't read that book. Mitch Albom caters to the LCD in readers and that irks me.

Sweetie Darling said...

I used to love Mitch when he was a sportswriter - he was on the ESPN Sunday morning show of the same name, which was great even for a casual sports fan like me - but now I just have contempt for the Thomas Kincaide Painter of Dreck approach to his work. How many times can you milk the same idea? Poor Morrie, so exploited.

Melissa said...

i haven't read this one - but i have no desire to after my run-in with "tuesdays with morrie". i got half way though and couldn't continue because i found the writing so annoying. at the time i felt cold-hearted for not being able to appreciate the sweet little tale that everyone was raving about. glad i'm not alone!

landismom said...

Yeah, I confess, I have no interest at all in reading this guy's books, despite the fact that he is so popular. Thanks for reaffirming my prejudices.

Anonymous said...

I actually really liked this book while I was reading it.

However, I must qualify that and say that I read it a month after my dad died. I was still kind of lost and was taking to anything that suggested that it was all going to be okay.

Of course, then I stepped back and thought about it and I realised that, perhaps, that book probably wasn't the greatest book to grab onto. At all.

Because it's all respun sugar.

Don't get me started on Tuesdays With Morrie.

Anonymous said...

See, I liked Tuesdays, but then again I'm a sucker for spritely old Jewish men.

Here's my own little snarky story: I walked into a B&N for the first time in a looong time today, and the front display table had Albom's new book, For One More Day. And I literally, in the middle of store, picked it up and said just as loud as you please, "Now what in the hell is THIS??" So blogging about The Five People seems almost tame to me. ;)

JAM said...

Is part of the problem that this kind of stuff is so... ubiquitous? I'm not really one to talk because, hell, I read romance novels. But as with just about any other genre or class of fiction or non-fiction, there's absolute crap (often entertaining in its own way if it isn't outright offensive) and there's really great and then there's that vast in-between of Oprah-book-club-stop-wasting-my-time.
And it's infuriating that that vast in-between is so profitable. Nicholas Sparks, I'm looking at you.

Anonymous said...

nannie fanny what a hag....Now Jeanette Winterson's 'Weight' I wanted to re-read it as soon as I finished it. Weight, is part of a Myth series so I picked up the Atwood contribution and I threw it across the bathroom. Ya, I'm a bath tub reader.

katherine m. miller said...

I feel like I would agree, but I've never read it. A girl (basically a future extra on a Girls Gone Wild episode) I once played basketball with and another teammate's mother (who was crazy and a prescription drug addict, but that's another story), both raved on and on about Five People and I mentally determined I would never, ever, ever, never read it.

Unknown said...

Now that you've ripped on Albom, is this where I get to say that I hated The Alchemist? Is that acceptable yet?

Anonymous said...

This is funny because I just finished listening to this book today on cd on my commute. All I ask from a commute book is distraction from boredom and a reasonably interesting story, but this was neither. Really sappy, maudlin, and boring.
P.S. I hated The Alchemist a lot worse than this.

Melissa said...

amen! i totally hated the alchemist, too. but never told anyone until now. i somehow felt that there might be something wrong with me b/c i hated it so much. ha. i'm not usually a book hater, but it was just annoying!

Anonymous said...

Diner Girl says - but more eloquently - what I would have said about not bothering to even try to read this book.

My general reaction to the scenario she lays out is to RUN FOR THE HILLS.

Matthew E said...

Albom did co-write a song with Warren Zevon, so he's not all bad.

I also profoundly disagree with the notion that everything happens for a reason. To me, this has always seemed like a safe, facile tool to help us stomach the fact that terrible, mostrous, unspeakable things happen in this world.

I agree that everything happens for a reason... I just disagree that the reason is often that interesting. Frequently it's trivial. Someone killed by a drunk driver? That happened for a reason, all right: somebody got wasted and criminally irresponsible. There's your reason.

venitha said...

You don't like to slag books? Gotta read some Dorothy Parker, babe.

Anita said...

Ok, I knew I liked you.

I couldn't exactly articulate it very well in book club, but I thought this book was the most overrated thing I'd ever read.

At least other books I've read and found distasteful, such as The Notebook, didn't pretend to be something they weren't. Didn't pretend to have insightful hidden messages.

I didn't like Tuesdays with Morrie much, but this one was most definitely work.

Sorry, Mitch, but I'm done with you. But I'm darn impressed with how you manage to sell so many books.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you on "The Five People...". I was given this book as an Xmas present from a family member. This person said they read the book and it meant a lot to him and he really wanted me to read it. I finally started, and I must say, I am struggling to get through it. I find it trite and very poorly written. I also believe that not everything happens for a reason. There are some things we can't make sense of no matter how we try. This seems to be a book for those who desperately need to be reassured that there's a meaning, a heaven, an answer for everything, etc.