The Compass, by Tammy Kling and John Spencer Ellis (Softcover, 2009)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
Through the course of thirteen chapters, this book teaches 10 life lessons. The authors took care to create an separate section after the story part to pull these out and briefly discuss each one in a separate section called Reader's Key. The 10 lessons are the point of the book, so in that sense it follows the traditional "10" arrangement of self-help books (which are usually arranged in 10 chapters).
The lessons are not the pabulum that passes for wisdom in many of today's books in the guidance genre. Instead, they are the deeper lessons that can be life-changing if pondered and applied. This book doesn't provide a 10-step recipe for becoming a new person or a discussion of who moved your cheese. Each of the lessons involves taking control of what life hands you and moving forward with it, instead of letting events control you.
The reader follows the protagonist (Jonathon) through his adventures and sees life lessons revealed as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, the authors try to help this process along rather than let it emerge organically (more on that, in a moment). Still, they kept things interesting enough that I started and finished this book on the same day even though it's over 200 pages long.
A few lines in the book resonated with me. For example, one of the characters said most people are on autopilot and go through their day without thinking about what they are actually doing. This has been a topic of discussion many times in the Mindconnection newsletter, and it's a concept that has profound implications.
Being an automaton makes life easier, but it leaves the richness out. It's like making coffee without adding the grounds. And it's normal. That problem is addressed through more than one of the lessons in the book. It's also a core problem that the protagonist overcomes.
If you're thinking about how to have a more fulfilling life, this book is worth reading and contemplating. But as a novel, it's rough. Reading it reminded me of a method of teaching I have seen in schools ranging from the religious to the martial arts. It involves telling a story to illustrate a point. It's not about the story, but about the point being made. The effort doesn't go into fully developing the story or the characters in it. The story exists not to be a solid story in its own right, but to provide a framework for visualizing and learning the lesson. That's what this book is, rather than a fully-developed novel.
This book has problems in dialogue and characterization. The problems are intertwined--mostly cardboard characters delivering exposition. The main character is developed fairly well and the reader can care about him, but the other characters seem to exist for the purpose of preaching to the main character.
The most egregious characterization is that of a 10-year old street urchin who is multi-lingual and exudes the wisdom of a very experienced adult. This is explained by referring to him as an "old soul." It would be better to delete this character entirely, or rewrite so he's the appropriate age and status for the dialogues and monologues attributed to him.
One egregious misuse of dialogue occurs during Jonathan's second meeting with his wife after his return. We have this intense emotional scene, and suddenly she launches into an expositional monologue that has nothing to do with the emotions the character would be feeling at that point.
Despite these flaws, the authors did manage to maintain a certain tension and did have a fairly believable plot. In Alfred Hitchcock parlance, the hero was chasing a McGuff and didn't find it until near the end. So, the potential is there for turning this into a novel that also teaches instead of merely a book that uses a story to teach.
So, what are the ten lessons? If I told you, I'd be giving away too much. But here's something to get you started. One of the characters says, "How many summers or falls do you have left, Jonathon?" Then he goes on to essentially say we can fill those remaining summers with happiness or with negative emotions. Your choice. Over the past few years, I've become fond of saying, "Life is short." That simple concept is very instructive. This book explores several ways in which it is and what to do about it.
After you read the book, you'll understand why the title, The Compass, fits so well. The ten lessons are really about getting your bearings and determining your direction. An incident can cause a compass to get stuck, so it gives you the wrong bearings. Follow it, and you go in the wrong direction. Is your life compass able to find true north, or is it stuck on a false point? Life, after all, is a journey. This book can help you make sure you're traveling in the right direction.