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Book Nook - 04-07-2016

Monday, July 04, 2016

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Scout’s Honour
Most people must have forgotten all about Boy Scouts and their do-gooding; it is at the core of Monica Wood’s heartwarming novel, The One-in-a-Million Boy.

The eleven-year-old boy in the book remains unnamed for some reason and always referred to as “the boy.” He is  pale, thin, wide-eyed autistic wonder boy with a penchant for lists, a passion for the Guiness Book of Records and the remarkable ability to empathise with and befriend an old woman.

Ona Vitkus is the real heroine of the novel—she is 104 years old of Lithuanian origin, but she has little recollection of her childhood. She is healthy for her age and lives alone, satisfied with her lot till the boy appears at her doorstep with his overenthusiastic scout master, Ted Ledbetter. She has rejected several helpers for laziness or slovenliness, but the boy, with his willingness to work, meticulousness and politeness wins her heart. The boy awakens in her a desire to live longer and make it to the Guiness Book of Records; he also nudges her memory for her life gone by and coaxes her to reveal her the story and her long-buried secrets on tape for his school project on grandparents. A few pages into the novel, the boy dies. His father Quinn is made to go to Ona’s house by his grieving twice-ex-wife Belle, to finish the boy’s assignment.

Quinn, a musician, always on the road with his gigs, wasn’t much of a father to the boy, and after the two divorces from Belle is even more of an absentee dad. The child’s death evokes latent guilt in him with results in his going to Ona’s aid and forming an even stronger friendship with her than his son.

Ona is determined to fulfill the boy’s desire to see her name in the famous book of records, but she needs documents to prove her age, which she does not have. Quinn is coerced into taking her on a long journey to retrieve her birth certificate, which her firstborn might have.  Belle joins in and the trip makes the parents evaluate their own lives.  It’s as if, through his death, the boy gave meaning and a sense of purpose to the people who loved him.

Monica Wood writes with acuity about her characters, the boy, Ona, Quinn, Belle, Ted and the others who cross their paths, including a bunch of gospel rockers Quinn works with on and off. The tragedy of the boy’s death soaks through the pages, but never overwhelms its tone of gentle humour. Neither does the novel ever get mawkish, even though it is about coping with grief.The One-in-a-Million Boy is highly recommended.

The One-in-a-Million Boy
By Monica Wood
Published by Headline
Pages: 406

Excerpt of The One-in-a-Million Boy
She was waiting for him — or someone — though he had not phoned ahead. “Where’s the boy?” she called from her porch.

“Couldn’t make it,” he said. “You Mrs. Vitkus?” He’d come to fill her bird feeders and put out her trash and tender sixty minutes to the care of her property. He could do at least that.

She regarded him peevishly, her face a collapsed apple, drained of color but for the small, unsettling, seed-bright eyes. “My birds went hungry,” she said. “I can’t manage the ladder.” Her voice suggested mashed glass.

“Mrs. Ona Vitkus? Forty-two Sibley Ave.?” He checked the address again; he’d taken two buses across town to get here. The green bungalow sat at the woodsy edge of a dead-end street, two blocks from a Lowe’s and a few strides from a hiking trail. Standing in the driveway, Quinn could hear birds and traffic in equal measure.

“It’s ‘Miss,’?” she said haughtily. He caught the faintest trace of an accent. The boy hadn’t mentioned it. She’d probably staggered through Ellis Island with the huddled masses. “He didn’t come last week, either,” she said. “These boys don’t stick to things.”

“I can’t help that,” Quinn said, suddenly wary. He’d been led to expect a pink-cheeked charmer. The house resembled a witch’s hovel, with its dreary flower beds and sharply pitched dormers and shingles the color of thatch.

“They’re supposed to be teaching these boys about obedience. Prepared and kind and obedient .?.?. kind and obedient and .?.?.” She rapped herself lightly on the forehead.

“Clean,” Quinn offered.

The boy was gone: clean gone. But Quinn couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“Clean and reverent,” the woman said. “That’s what they promise. They pledge. I thought this one was the real McCoy.” Another weak echo of accent: something brushy in the consonants, nothing an ordinary ear would pick up.

“I’m his father,” Quinn said.

“I figured.” She shifted inside her quilted parka. She also wore a hat with pompoms, though it was fifty-five degrees, late May, the sun beading down. “Is he sick?” “No,” Quinn said. “Where’s the birdseed?”

The old woman shivered. Her stockinged legs looked like rake handles jammed into small black shoes. “Out back in the shed,” she said. “Next to the door, unless the boy moved it. He gets his little notions. There’s a ladder there, too. You’re tall. You might not need it.” She sized Quinn up as if considering a run at his clothes.

“If I lowered the feeders,” he suggested, “you could fill them yourself.”

She dug her fists into her hips. “I’m quite put out about this,” she said. All at once she sounded near tears, an unexpected key change that sped things up on Quinn’s end.

“Let me get to it,” he said.

“I’ll be inside.” She aimed a knuckly finger toward her door. “I can supervise just as well through the window.” She spoke with a zeal at odds with her physical frailty, and Quinn doubted for the first time Belle’s word that Ona Vitkus was 104 years old. Since the boy’s death, Belle’s view of reality had gone somewhat gluey. Quinn was awed by her grief, cowed by its power to alter her. He wanted to save her but had no talent for anything more interpersonally complicated than to obey commands as a form of atonement. Which was how he’d wound up here, under orders from his twice-ex-wife, to complete their son’s good deed.

The shed had peeling double doors that opened easily. The hinges looked recently oiled. Inside, he found a stepladder with a broken rung. The place reeked of animal — not dog or cat, something grainier; mice, maybe. Or skinny, balding, fanged rats. Garden implements, seized with rust, hung in a diagonal line on the far wall, points and prongs and blades facing out. He considered the ways the boy could have been hurt on this weekly mission of mercy: ambushed by falling timber, gnawed by vermin — Troop 23’s version of bait and switch.

But the boy had not been hurt. He had been, in his words, “inspired.”

Quinn found the birdseed in a plastic bucket that he recognized. It had once held the five gallons of joint compound with which he’d repaired the walls of Belle’s garage — before their final parting, before she returned his rehearsal space to a repository for paint thinner and plant poisons and spare tires. Inside the bucket Quinn found a king-size scoop, shiny and cherry red, jolly as a prop in a Christmas play. On a nearby shelf he spotted nine more scoops, identical. The boy was a hoarder. He kept things that could not be explained. On the day before the funeral, Belle had opened the door to the boy’s room, instructing Quinn to look around if he wanted, but to remove nothing, touch nothing. So, he counted. Bird nests: 10; copies of Old Yeller: 10; flashlights: 10; piggy banks: 10; Boy Scout manuals: 10. He had Popsicle sticks , acorns, miniature spools of the sort found in ladies’ sewing kits, everything corralled into tidy ten-count groupings. One computer, ten mouse pads. One desk, ten pencil cases. Hoarding, Belle maintained, was a reasonable response to a father whose attentions dribbled like water from a broken spigot. “Figure it out,” she had once told him. “Why would an eleven-year-old child insist on all this backup for the things he needs?”

Because there’s something wrong with him, went Quinn’s silent answer. But on that solemn day they’d observed the room in silence. As Belle preceded Quinn out the door, Quinn palmed the boy’s diary — a single notebook, spiral-bound, five by seven, basic black — and shoved it inside his jacket. Nine others remained, still sealed in shrink-wrap.

As Quinn lugged the birdseed out to Miss Vitkus’s feeders, he pictured the rest of Troop 23 happily do-gooding for more appealing charity cases, the type who knitted pink afghans. The scoutmaster, Ted Ledbetter, a middle-school teacher and single father who claimed to love woodland hikes, had likely foisted Miss Vitkus on the one kid least likely to complain. Now she was tapping on the window, motioning for Quinn to get cracking.

Between the house and a massive birch, Miss Vitkus had strung a thirty-foot clothesline festooned with bird feeders. At six-two, he didn’t require the ladder, though the boy would have, small as he was, elfin and fine-boned. Quinn had also been small at eleven, shooting up the following summer in a growth spurt that left him literally aching and out of clothes.

Perhaps the boy would have been tall. A tall hoarder. A tall counter of mysterious things.

Also received
Aarathi Prasad’s In The Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine is for anyone interested in the various facets of Indian medicine. Far from being ponderous, it is a very readable exploration into the various facts of medicine, ancient and modern from traditional healing to plastic surgery.

The synopsis states, “India defies definition, and the story of medicine in India is similarly rich and complex: shaped by unique challenges and opportunities, uniting cutting-edge technological developments with ancient cultural traditions, fuelled by political changes which transformed the lives of millions and moulded by the energy of forceful individuals. Here, Aarathi Prasad investigates how Indian medicine came to be the way it is.

Her travels will take her to bonesetter clinics in Jaipur and Hyderabad and the waiting-rooms of Bollywood's best plastic surgeons, and introduce her to traditional healers as well as the world-beating heart surgeon who is revolutionising treatment of the poor around the globe. From the asthma treatment 'cure' that involves swallowing a live fish, to ground-breaking mental health initiatives in Mumbai's Dharavi mega-slum and ground-breaking neuroscience happening inside the Mughal walls of old Delhi, In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room tells the story of the Indian people, in sickness and in health, and provides a unique perspective on the most diverse and fascinating country in the world.In The Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine

By Aarathi Prasad
Publisher: Profile
Pages: 214

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