Monthly Archives: November 2012

‘The Fault in our Stars’ by John Green

There are some Young Adult genre books written for teens which appeal to adults as well,  such as Hunger Games and The Book Thief.  ‘The Fault in our Stars’ is beautifully written and touched me deeply. Written with a great deal of humour and panache, Green takes a difficult subject and makes it not only easy to read, but unforgettable and wise. Although it is an edgy love story about two teenagers with terminal cancer, it is also honest and real about how to live life in any circumstances, in a way that only a book about death can be.

Augustus and Hazel meet at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Some members of the group are survivors and some are dying of cancer…but wait, let me rephrase that….living with cancer. That is an important distinction in this book. It’s about living because the reality is that we are all going to die. The focus is on living as normal a life as possible in the meantime, something which is so important to those struggling with illness.

John Green has written two other books for young adults and I am looking forward to enjoying his writing again. I’m also curious to test-drive his books on the teenage reading group that I lead, to see if young adults are as impressed with his writing as adults are!

‘On Beauty’ and ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is an excellent writer and ‘On Beauty’ (winner of the Orange Prize in 2006) is a literary work of art, echoing E.M. Forster’s novel ‘Howard’s End’. Her descriptions are so much more than about what things look like, and are mini-essays getting at the very essence of what she is describing. So in addition to ‘on beauty’ (which incidentally sounds like the title of an essay), there are throughout the book serendipitious essays ‘on marriage/on family/on English weather/on sibling love and rivalry/on academia/on politics/on infidelity/on youth/on being black/on parenting’ etc. etc. Though this might sound boring, it’s not. Reviewers are divided about whether they found the book engaging and readable enough, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is meant to be comic and there are some funny moments in it, although I found ‘White Teeth’ much more so.  The only criticism I would have is that the ending, in comparison to the rest of the book, seemed a bit weak and left too many loose ends.

‘On Beauty’ is basically the story of a New England ivy league academic family. They happen to be of mixed race and culture which is typical in Smith’s novels. They love each other dearly, and do work at being a family, despite their varied interests and passions. Part of the novel takes place in England, and deals with all sorts of cultural and political and personal situations and indiscretions. Smith has woven together a story that is brilliant and ordinary at the same time. She has written her characters with great empathy and insight.

Laura Miller, writing for Salon, captures the book well with this: “Beauty is both powerful and helpless, the university both precious and hellish, ideas both essential and superfluous, people both funny and tragic. Love, the guiding principle of this and all of Zadie Smith’s fiction, is as blind as the proverb declares, but in its blindness, it sees everything.”

Smith grew up multicultural and in an interview with her, she talks about absorbing that social aspect of her upbringing. “For personal reasons to do with my upbringing, the questions of accents, of class-as-revealed-through-voice, weighed very heavily on me. It’s actually an aspect of my fiction, of myself, that I find a little depressing. There are deeper differences between people than the social, but I find it hard to express them without making some reference to the social.” For me, it was the character’s voices that make them come alive.

A few years ago I read ‘White Teeth’ which also deals with culture clash and social issues, but is lighter and more comic than ‘On Beauty’. Set in London, it is the story of two unlikely friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal and what happens in their families. It is a serious book about multiculturalism and identity but Smith gives it warmth and humour. The theme of “white teeth” runs throughout with much talk about false teeth and root canals. White teeth are in fact, the one thing that all cultures have in common.

Here latest novel just came out and is called ‘NW’. It is about an area in the Northwest corner of London, NW being the start of that postal code.

‘The Dog that Talked to God’ by Jim Kraus

A quirky and heartfelt Christian story, this might be nice to download onto your Kindle or Kobo for a trip. It is light and sweet (but not too sweet), mostly for dog lovers but could be enjoyed by anyone. It does reflect daily struggles and doubts in a realistic way, although I found the ending a bit too neat and tidy!

Mary is recovering from a tragic loss and has decided to get a dog for companionship. She is not speaking to God at the moment because she is confused about how God could allow her new situation and is feeling distant in her faith. She is struggling to understand and feels God is silent and harsh. But she can speak to her new puppy and she is not even so very amazed when Rufus actually speaks back to her. Whether this miraculous conversation is real or not doesn’t matter. It becomes the catalyst for change and the nudge she needs. An inner voice can be instrumental in turning us in the right direction and when that voice takes the form of a miniature schnauzer, it is charming! People who have dogs regularly imagine what they are thinking so it might not even come as a complete surprise when they actually venture to voice their thoughts, ideas, or questions.

This is a novel in the tradition of Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) and John Grogan (Marley & Me).

‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch

How far would you go to protect the ones you love?

That is the haunting question which echoes in the background of a horrifying situation revealed through what, on the surface, appears to be an evening of fine dining in a Dutch restaurant. Translated by Sam Garrett from the Dutch, this book has already sold more than 1 million copies in 24 countries.

Herman Koch has given the reader an intriguing look at what people will do to protect the ones they love and not lose their ‘happy family’. The horror is not the ‘bump in the night’ kind, but rather a chilling revelation in this psychological thriller, revealing a family not happy at all.

The stage of the story is set with two upper middle class brothers and their wives meeting in a restaurant with the courses serving as acts in the play. Their children have been caught on CCTV camera committing a horrible crime which shocks the nation, but only their parents have recognized them so far in the grainy video.

Koch keeps the narrative flowing well and the running commentary is actually very engaging, especially if you are Dutch or know the Dutch culture. Appearances matter and rules must be kept especially among the respectable bourgeois, but as dinner progresses,  the story reaches a ‘culinary climax’ and all semblance of normalcy disappears. A modern world is revealed which may be as disappointing and disturbing as an overpriced meal in a high class restaurant.

The book is a good one for book clubs. There is a lot to discuss about the nature of evil and to what extent parents are responsible for the acts of their children. A reviewer from  The Guardian said the book will appeal to those “who enjoy seeing what happens when the cosy certainties of middle-class families are shattered, when the thin facades of decency and manners are wrenched aside, showing the brutal, violent creatures that lurk beneath the surface.” Now there is some food for thought.

‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

When Harold Fry leaves his house to post a letter, he has no idea that he will not return for 87 days or that he will walk 627 miles all the way across the country! With only the shoes on his feet and the clothes he is wearing, Harold embarks on a quiet gentle journey of self-discovery. His quest is to save someone’s life by sheer faith, hope and determination alone.

On a postcard to Queenie Hennessy at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, is written this:

“I am on my way. All you have to do is wait. Because I am going to save you, you see. I will keep on walking and you must keep on living. “   Harold Fry

This book is a simple story with some beautiful insights into human nature with all of its joys, vulnerabilities, sorrows, regrets and triumphs. Harold and Maureen are stuck in a rut where nothing changes and they hardly even speak to each other anymore. She criticizes everything he does and he is bored and unlikely to participate in any kind of adventure. And then Harold gets a letter in the mail.

Another great pick for book club! I was inspired by characters who are open to growth and change. The book caused me to reflect on my own life, love, and longings. It’s a journey I will not soon forget.