In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you. -Buddha
Surprising video about the beauty others see in you–well worth three minutes of your time.
Do you see the beauty in you?
Spiritual thriller captures the intellect but delivers only a weak emotional punch
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
With its blend of technology and spirituality, Alex Shakar’s latest novel grabbed my attention early. I read as fast as I could while savoring the author’s singular metaphors and well-honed style. However, this spiritual novel’s muddled ending made me wonder if I’d wolfed it down too quickly and missed the meat of the story.
Story: Fred Brounian and his twin brother, George, were once co-CEOs of a burgeoning New York City software company devoted to the creation of utopian virtual worlds. Now, in the summer of 2006, as two wars rage and the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, George has fallen into a coma, control of the company has been wrenched away by a military contracting conglomerate, and Fred has moved back in with his parents. Broke and alone, he’s led by an attractive woman, Mira, into a neurological study promising to give him “peak” experiences and a newfound spiritual outlook on life. As the study progresses, lines between the subject and the experimenter blur, and reality becomes increasingly porous. Meanwhile, Fred finds himself caught up in what seems at first a cruel prank: a series of bizarre emails and texts that purport to be from his comatose brother.
Moving between the research hospitals of Manhattan, the streets of a meticulously planned Florida city, the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the uncanny, immersive worlds of urban disaster simulation; threading through military listserv geek-speak, Hindu cosmology, the maxims of outmoded self-help books and the latest neuroscientific breakthroughs, Luminarium is a brilliant examination of the way we live now, a novel that’s as much about the role technology and spirituality play in shaping our reality as it is about the undying bond between brothers, and the redemptive possibilities of love. (From goodreads.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. I loved Shakar’s initial premise: Use cutting-edge technology to explore a blend of quantum mechanics, Buddhist and Hindu traditions, reiki, and other spiritual practices to develop spirituality based on “faith without ignorance.” To do so, a neurological research scientist stimulates specific regions of Fred’s brain to trigger spiritual experiences. Fred studies various spiritual traditions, particularly Hindu mythology, to come to terms with his experiences. Shakar examines each extraordinary event through the lens of both cutting-edge science and spirituality, creating fascinating contrasts and comparisons but rarely any contradictions. Fred eventually lands on the Zen concept of “mu,” which he interprets as doubting everything, as a path to enlightenment. He also explores samsara, the concept of existence as a divine, all-encompassing game.
My take: Luminarium makes unexpected and compelling connections between a number of fascinating themes – spirituality, computer gaming, quantum theory, Hindu and Buddhist practices, twin experiences, even 9/11 and magic shows. I wanted to love this spiritual novel, and mostly I did. Shakar’s prose is sleek and polished, studded with arresting metaphors and juxtapositions. The idea that these seemingly unrelated storylines could be woven together into a brilliant tapestry of meaning kept me reading, even when the story began to bog down in Hindu mythology and 9/11 reminiscences.
In the end, however, a clear picture never emerged; the various story threads knotted into a confused snarl of insights that lacked enough context to illuminate me, so to speak. From my limited knowledge of Buddhist practice, I suspect that when Fred retreats into mu meditation he progresses through the traditional stages of Zen enlightenment. Shakar also takes the idea of samsara literally, placing Fred and his twin in a virtual reality game to play out their karmic issues. Perhaps someone with more dharma knowledge could follow all the threads and discover the hidden truths. For me, however, the novel posed too many questions and resolved too few. This spiritual thriller engaged my intellect, but the ending left an emotional void.
Details: Luminarium, by Alex Shakar
Soho Press, 2011
Kindle, approx. 400 pages
Buy at Amazon
Guest post by Meryl Davids Landau, author of Downward Dog, Upward Fog
I never expected my novel to get a “cute stiletto” rating, but there it was on a women’s fiction blog last month, rated the most adorable of the her shoe-style ratings: the hot high heels that signify the blogger “absolutely loved it and wants a sequel.” Of course, it’s not a total stretch; on the surface, the novel does meet the criteria for contemporary women’s fiction, a genre some call chick-lit.
Main character Lorna has a good job, a hot boyfriend, a great group of girlfriends, and a problematic, overly critical mother. But rather than revolving around her job or relationships, the plot centers on her spiritual evolution—whether she can learn to take her budding spiritual practice off her yoga mat and into her daily life, especially when a personal tragedy strikes (read PJ’s review).
I knew spiritually seeking women like me would be interested in reading a story like this. What I didn’t anticipate—indeed, I probably would have bet against–was the enthusiastic reception the book has gotten by mainstream chick-lit book bloggers, and by readers who had never even put a toe down a personal spiritual path before. When my novel came out last summer, the book’s publicist and I were in total agreement that spiritual media—blogs, radio shows, magazines, those free newsy publications given out in health-food stores…—would be the best target.
As an aside, I sent books to a few mainstream book bloggers. Her publicity efforts yielded great results, but, surprisingly, so did mine. The first review in a general interest book blog gave the novel 5 out of 5 stars, with the writer noting that “anyone could, after reading this book, choose to begin a similar spiritual journey with a level of comfort she may not have had before.” (I suspect she was talking about herself.) Several glowing reviews on other general book blogs followed.
I still would not have thought bloggers who focus on contemporary women’s fiction would be open to the spirituality in my novel. But, this fall, on the reading website Goodreads, I linked up with a woman who happened to be the publicist for the blog, Chick Lit Central. That interest—and their subsequent glowing review—gave me the confidence to contact other pink-paged reviewers. In my email pitch, I was clear about my novel’s deep, spiritual theme.
To my amazement, a majority of chick-lit bloggers I contacted expressed interest, and several have already sung the novel’s praises in their reviews–with quite a few enthusing over the originality of using the chick-lit genre in this new way.
The moral I’ve learned from this story: The audience for a spiritual novel isn’t limited to people who are already on a spiritual path. As long as the spirituality is accessible and not preachy, regular people will feel resonance, too. I’m looking forward to getting more of those stiletto ratings—and if you’ve written a spiritual novel, you should anticipate them, too!
What is spiritual/new age fiction? Novels such as Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, or Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. Similar books might be labeled Spiritual, Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Visionary Fiction, or Paranormal, but labels don’t matter.
What good spiritual/new age novels all have in common is that the authors weave spiritual and metaphysical themes into strong story lines that keep readers turning the pages despite their sometimes pedantic tone. Readers want to be both entertained and educated. They want to get lost in an enthralling story that captivates their emotions and nourishes their spirit. Keenly interested in all things spiritual but not necessarily religious, they want to have fun learning, instead of wading through a nonfiction tome.
How do you write good spiritual/new age fiction? Understand what readers want. In The Writer Magazine, Salon critic Laura Miller identifies what readers care about in order of importance:
Note that theme is last on the list. You first must have great characters and a solid plot, and then structure your thematic elements to support the story without overwhelming it.
Where do spiritual/new age authors go wrong? They forget that fiction comes first. Many write fictionalized memoirs that don’t meet the basic requirements for a good novel: A great story and engaging characters. Some write instructional guides draped in fictional trappings. Even if the spiritual message is strong, weak writing skills can drive the reader, who first and foremost wants to be entertained, to drop the book before any education can take place. Good spiritual/new age fiction appeals to both the emotions and the intellect.
Novel is short on story and long on instruction, but it’s an easy, rewarding read
In “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari,” Robin S. Sharma clothes sound advice for spiritual and personal growth in a thin mantle of fiction that delivers much instruction but minimal entertainment. However, Sharma’s fictional approach makes for an easy read and good retention of his key principles.
Story: After a heart attack nearly kills him, a high-powered lawyer treks to India to learn how to live a more meaningful life. Months later, he returns to the West and recounts the story of seven principles and practices that can help anyone experience true happiness. (From goodreads.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: The narrator spends one revelation-filled night with Julian Mantle learning the fundamentals of spiritual growth. Julian imparts everything he has learned from his time with the Sivana monks, cramming a lifetime of wisdom into their short time together. Sharma structures the lessons into seven chapters based on a short fable full of symbols. Each symbol represents a key idea from the Seven Basic Principles for Enlightened Living. Each chapter ends with an action page that summarizes the symbol, what you need to remember, and techniques to try, such as the Ten Rituals for Radiant Living.
My take: Sharma calls his book a “fable” in the subtitle, but it is both more and less than that. The fable part takes place in the opening chapters of the book, in which we discover that the hard-driven attorney has moved to India, become a monk, and after three years has returned to pass on his wisdom to his protégé. That’s the extent of the story, and character development fares little better. As a work of fiction, the book leaves much to be desired.
However, as a collection of easy-to-digest life strategies and pearls of wisdom, the book is quite satisfying. Sharma has organized the book around a short fable about a garden full of symbols (a fable within a fable), which makes it easy to understand and follow his 30-day plan to enlightened living. The give-and-take of dialog between Julian Mantle and his student rescues the story from the tedium of an instructional guide. If your primary goal as a reader is to quickly absorb the core of Sharma’s life improvement teaching, then this book is a great place to start.
A brief editorial aside: Paulo Coelho calls the book “A captivating story that teaches as it delights.” Yes, that is the intent of Sharma’s fable. However, the story falls far short of “delight” if you are expecting a good work of fiction. The success of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari as an international bestseller illustrates once more that readers truly want “captivating stories that teach as they delight,” to borrow Coelho’s phrase. Why are there not more good writers producing new age novels that truly do teach and delight?
My search for high-quality new age fiction has turned up multiple writers such as Garth Stein, James Redfield, and Dorothy Bryant, and notable new age novels such as Ferney and Downward Dog, Upward Fog. But the search has been difficult for several reasons, including the lack of a clearly defined genre for spiritually agnostic fiction that makes it easy to find, and a lack of opportunities for new age writers to publish and promote their work to mainstream audiences. I believe that an eager audience awaits many great works of new age fiction that have yet to be discovered; once they are, I am convinced this new genre will regularly hit the bestseller lists. We as writers need to strive for that perfect balance of captivating story and effective education. When we figure it out, the rewards will be substantial.
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams & Reaching Your Destiny, by Robin S. Sharma
Published by Harper San Francisco, 1999
Paperback, 198 pages
Buy at Amazon