Tag Archives: Beautifully Written

Room, by Emma Donoghue

via tower.com

Room, by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Co., 2010), was like nothing I’ve ever read before. Like The Book Thief, Room is narrated in an unusual way. The story is told through the eyes of 5-year-old Jack, a little boy who’s spent his whole life in an 11’x11′ room with his Ma. Hearing the story of a young woman’s kidnapping and confinement through the filter of a 5-year-old gives the story a new depth and constantly throws you into a new, unusual perspective.

If you’ve spent much time talking to 5 year olds, you’ll know that they haven’t quite mastered the nuances of our tricky English language. Those sneaky pronouns, irregular past tense verbs and complicated sentence structures get in the way when Jack tells the story, but, like reading in a foreign language, once you get used to the patterns and “Jack-speak”, the book’s narrative flows much more smoothly, allowing  you to get swept into the story.

Jack and Ma (we never do learn her “other two names”, as Jack deems them unnecessary because Ma already has a name: Ma) have a daily routine in Room. (Jack personifies a lot of inanimate objects, and considers them his friends) Jack’s whole world is in Room, his friends are the five picture books he can read by himself, Bed, Duvet, Wardrobe, Rug, Plant, Egg-snake under the bed, and his TV friend Dora. When Jack begins to outgrow the confines of Room, Ma breaks down, tells him the story of her kidnapping and “unlies” the truth of Outside. They plan a scary, brave (“scrave”) escape and I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler if I tell you that they are successful because…

The second half of the book focuses on Ma and Jack adjusting to life in Outside. We meet Jack’s grandparents and, through Jack’s very real child’s perspective, get a glimpse of how the fringe characters had adjusted to Ma’s disappearance.

While the events in this story are horrifying to think about: kidnapping, repeated rape, a child growing up in a tiny, 11’x11′ space, they are told with a contrasting attitude of normalcy and a perspective that will keep you turning pages. Jack’s voice and point of view keep the story light and straightforward. Any “oh, how awful it must’ve been” voices are all on the periphery, mostly from the outside world after the big escape.

What really stood out to me in this story is the bond between Jack and Ma, the courage and creativity she used to create as normal of a life as was possible for her little boy in their confined space, and the fierce protectiveness Jack and Ma feel toward each other. Rather than being a depressing Debbie Downer, Room was full of hope and life.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a unique, perspective-changing, thought-provoking book, I definitely recommend Room. If you’re still not sure about it, check out this great review by The Guardian’s Nicola Barr. Or this interview with author Emma Donoghue: 


Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

via Algonquin Books, workman.com

Water for Elephants is a book I have wanted to read for a very long time. Unfortunately for me, it has also been one I’ve managed to avoid buying for a very long time, too. Something to do with all the hype surrounding it—sometimes I just don’t want to read something everybody and their mother is already gushing about. But, speaking of mothers, mine had gotten a copy from the library and spent a good part of a freakishly warm Chicago spring day snorting and laughing on the front porch while she read. I had no choice.

I wasn’t sorry. Chapter One introduces us to our main character, Jacob Jankowski in the present day from the hallway of his nursing home; “Either there’s been an accident or there’s roadwork, because a gaggle of old ladies is glued to the window at the end of the hall like children or jailbirds.” As it turns out, there is a circus setting up right outside. The presence of the enormous canvas tent sends Jacob’s mind reeling to a time long past, and thus begins our story.

We are taken back to the end of Jacob’s final year at veterinary college, during the Depression, a time when his parents have mortgaged their house to pay for his education and are accepting beans and eggs in lieu of payment for their services as veterinarians. A gruesome accident takes both of Jacob’s parents just before his final exams, and unable to concentrate on the test booklet on his desk, he walks out of his exam and keeps walking until dark. He comes across a dark set of train tracks, and desperation prompts him to hop the train that comes barreling out of the darkness; the decision changes the course of his life. Discovered and taken in by some working men on the circus train, Jacob is introduced to the wild, transient life of the circus.

The story has its ups and downs as Jacob falls for Marlena, the wife of his psychotic, mercurial boss (Uncle Al), and she seems to return his feelings. Along the way, the show takes in an elephant who seems clever enough, but refuses to listen to the commands of Uncle Al, resulting in some gut-checking animal abuse. Jacob, like any decent human, can’t stomach the way Uncle Al treats Rosie the elephant (which, incidentally, is similar to the way he treats his wife Marlena). The circus drives on as Jacob falls more and more for the two very different girls, driving him to become more and more bold in his actions.

I am not going to give away the climactic ending, but I still haven’t told you everything.

The way this story is told may not be unique—a nursing home prisoner battles through the ghosts of his past—but the way Gruen narrates through the eyes of a sharp-witted man who sees his essence draining away in a land of Jello salad and ubiquitous pills makes you sympathize with Jacob and silently root for him to damn them all and escape to something better. He’s certainly feisty enough.

The characters in Water for Elephants are real and likable. A motley crew of rag-tag performers and laborers, each has his own place in the circus hierarchy. True, it may be a love story, but isn’t some lovey-dovey sap story that you read with a box of tissue. This is a story that has sex, violence, joy, misery and grit. I think part of this owes to the fact that our narrator is a young man in his 20s, as well as the fact that life on the circus route was rough.

Bottom line: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I didn’t love about Water for Elephants, with the exception that it concluded with a pretty convenient ending, which I know bothers some readers. The journey to get there, however, was one helluva ride. Don’t wait as long as I did. Go pick up a copy!


The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

 

via Random House

Sometimes a book, let’s say a seemingly innocent young adult novel, comes along and sucks you in. It enchants you with real, faulted characters and beautiful descriptions. It chews you up, peppering the story with loss and grief, and soothes your wounds with stories of friendship, acceptance and love. Ultimately it spits you out, tears sliding down your cheeks, and you realize that the standard to which you hold literary fiction has been irrevocably raised.

The Book Thief’s back cover sets it up as the story of a young girl who steals books in Nazi Germany. The danger comes when her foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement. The simplicity of the blurb is deceptive, and you realize this right off the bat when the story is introduced and told by none other than Death himself.

 

As is only appropriate when the narrator is Death, the style of storytelling is a bit unorthodox. Surprises in the plot are leaked before they actually happen, but I was surprised to find that those leaks, while shocking, just drove me on in my reading, rather than spoiling the story. Things within the text are described in a way that is wholly unfamiliar. Zusak had a tendency to turn words into objects; “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet…” Death gave life to things as ordinary as the sky; “The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.”

All of these things added to the beauty and complexity of the story, and I haven’t even told you about the plot yet. The story of Liesel Meminger begins on a train. Death has just taken her younger brother en route to their new foster parents. In the first 30 pages of the book, Liesel loses her mother and brother, is thrust into the arms of a strange new family (the Hubermanns), and steals her first book, though she can’t yet read.

As the story progresses, tentative bonds are formed and strengthened, friends are found, and Liesel begins to grow more confident in her new life. The story is full of darkness but its redemption lies in the strength of its characters. Liesel and her friend Rudy could have been kids in my neighborhood growing up. They resonate a believable familiarity that keeps the book relatable in the  midst of incredible events.

A Jew, Max Vandenburg, shows up at Liesel’s house in the middle of the night. The reason, we learn, has everything to do with Hans Hubermann’s stint in WWI, his friendship with a Jewish soldier, and a promise made to that soldier’s widow upon Hans’ return to Germany. Max is the son of that Jewish soldier, and he is now in need of the help promised to his mother so many years ago, and so the Hubermans take him in, hide him in the basement, and Liesel’s education begins in ernest.

Liesel learns more important lessons in the basement of her foster parents’ house than she does at school. It is where she learns to write, it is where she begins to identify with a Jew while his brethren are being marched through town on their way to Dachau, and it is where words ultimately save her life.

Bottom line: In spite of The Book Thief‘s technical categorization of Young Adult, I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a book full of beauty and struggle. I will warn you: I read the end of the book through a blur of tears, but it was definitely worth it.

Listen to Markus Zusak talking about the book here: