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Book Nook - 16-05-2016

Monday, May 16, 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]

The Wisdom Of Kids
Two recent books, meant for young children, are filled with gentle wisdom that grown-ups could also benefit from. There are a few things common in both books-- the young, lonely and troubled protagonist of both is a pre-teen, possibly autistic girl, being raised by a single mother, but with the father not totally absent from her life. Both suffer the trauma of the death of a loved one and find their own ways of coping with grief.

In Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, which has already been nominated for major awards, 12-year-old Suzy Swanson is a brilliant at science but no good at making friends.  The kids in her school make fun of her, and her only friend Fanny makes like somewhat bearable. But in a great betrayal that could shatter a sensitive heart, Franny dumps Suzy to join the gang of popular girls, and joins in the ritual humiliation of her former friend. Then, to compound the shock, Franny drowns to death, and Suzanne stops speaking.

Her inexplicable muteness worries her parents, who take her to a therapist, where Suzy spends session after session, defiantly silent. A trip to the aquarium introduces Suzy to jellyfish, in particular, a venomous species called Irukandji.  Suzy is convinced that an expert swimmer like Franny could not have drowned just like that; she must have been stung by a poisonous jellyfish. If she can prove this, it will bring some closure to her sorrow and confusion. Her organized, scientifically-inclined brain cannot accept that “sometimes things just happen.”

As she goes about her plan, Benjamin portrays Suzy’s routine life of social isolation, with just her science teacher, the wonderfully goofy and kind Mrs Turton, being able to crack her defences somewhat by encouraging her love for science.

It’s a story of pain, but has enough humour to prevent it from becoming mawkish. Suzy with her mass of unmanageably curly hair that earns her the nickname Medusa, is incredibly brave and smart, which makes her endearing to the reader. If a child picks up this book—and parents must encourage them to—there are a lot of fascinating facts packed in; also an indirect plea to accept all kinds of people—‘weird’ kids like Suzy and her lab partner Justin who pops pills for his ADHD condition, or her gay brother and his cheerful partner.

The dedication of The Thing About Jellyfish reads, “For curious kids everywhere.” But it is the kind of simple and moving books that ought not to be confined to a readership of kids.

The Thing About Jellyfish
By Ali Benjamin
Publisher: Little, Brown/ Hachette
Pages: 343

Excerpt of The Thing About Jellyfish
A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough begins to look like a heart beating. It doesn’t matter what kind: the blood-redAtolla with its flashing siren lights, the frilly flower hat variety, or the near‑transparent moon jelly, Aurelia aurita. It’s their pulse, the way they contract swiftly, then release. Like a ghost heart—a heart you can see right through, right into some other world where everything you ever lost has gone to hide.

 Jellyfish don’t even have hearts, of course — no heart, no brain, no bone, no blood. But watch them for a while. You will see them beating.

Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times. I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large. Three billion. Count back three billion hours, and modern humans don’t exist—just wild‑eyed cave people, all hairy and grunting. Three billion   years, and life itself barely exists. And yet here’s your heart, doing its job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.

But only if you get to live that long.

It’s beating when you’re sleeping, when you’re watching TV, when you’re standing at the beach with your toes in the sand. Maybe while you’re standing there, you’re looking   at sparkles of white light on dark ocean, wondering if it’s worth getting your hair wet again.  Maybe you notice that your bathing suit straps are just a little too tight on your sunburned shoulders or that the sun is too bright in your eyes.

You squint a little. You are as alive as anybody else right now.

Meanwhile the waves keep rolling over your toes, one after another (like a heartbeat, almost—you can notice it or not), and the elastic is digging in, and perhaps what you notice, more than the sun or the straps, is how cold the water is, or the way the waves create hollow places in the wet sand beneath your feet. Your mom is off at your side somewhere; she’s taking a picture, and you know you should turn to her and smile.

But you don’t. You don’t turn, you don’t smile, you just keep looking out at the sea, and neither of you knows what matters about this moment, about what’s about to happen (how could you?).

And the whole while, your heart just keeps going. It does what it needs to do, one beat after another, until it gets the message that it’s time to stop, which might happen a few minutes from now, and you don’t even know it yet.

Because some hearts beat only about 412 million times.

Which might sound like a lot. But the truth is, it barely even gets you twelve years.

After the international bestseller about a grumpy old man, titled A Man Called Ove, Swedish writer Fredrik Backman has written the marvelous My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry about an imaginative and feisty seven-year-old girl called Elsa.

Elsa’s seventy-eight-old grandmother is irrepressible, eccentric, adventurous and with a sense of mischief that exasperates her daughter, the neighbours and the town’s cops. Nobody knows how to deal with a woman like that, as she drags Elsa along on all her adventures in real life as well as an imaginary world in the Land of the Almost-Awake with its many kingdoms, princes, princesses, dragons and other creatures, speaking to the child in a secret language.

Elsa is mercilessly ragged and beaten at school and manages to escape sometimes by simply outrunning her tormentors. Her mother is pregnant by her second husband, the fussy George, and Elsa fears when “Halfie,” her half sibling arrives, she will be abandoned. Her father, who has remarried, comes dutifully to pick her up when it is his turn to spend time with her, but his life is clearly elsewhere. Elsa’s only friend is her Granny and when she dies, the little girl is almost pushed into the imaginary kingdom, and creatures from there turn up in the real world. Elsa’s imagination, already fired by her grandmother’s stories, is further fuelled by what she calls “quality literature” – Harry Potter books and Marvel Comics.

Before her grandmother died, she entrusted Elsa with a mission — she has to deliver a series of letters to various people, saying sorry. Finding each is like treasure hunt with clues that Elsa has to look for. The wise old woman, anticipating Elsa’s crushing isolation after her death, hands the child a way of dealing with grief and anger, by planning this adventure for her.

With wit and sympathy, Backman writes about Elsa’s interactions with the other residents of the building—the always complaining Britt-Marie, her show-offy husband, the rough cabbie Alf, the ‘drunk’ who suffered an enormous tragedy in the past, a sad-looking woman and her son “with the syndrome,” an older couple he addicted to coffee, she to baking, the huge ‘Monster’ with helpless OCD, a ‘wurse’ or a large but friendly, cookie-guzzling dog everyone but Elsa fears.

As Elsa gets to know her neighbours better, she also realizes that they all had a connection with Granny’s stories and her past life as a doctor who went to the world’s trouble spots to help people, at the cost of neglecting her own daughter.

Backman deftly blends reality and fantasy into a whimsical, poignant, amusing and utterly charming novel.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry
By Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria
Pages: 384

Except of My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
Elsa is seven, going on eight.  She knows she isn’t especially good at being seven. . . . Adults describe her as “very grown-up for her age.”  Elsa knows this is just another way of saying “massively annoying for her age,” because they only tend to say this when she corrects them for mispronouncing “déjà vu” or for not being able to tell the difference between “me” and “I” at the end of a sentence. Smart-asses usually can’t, hence the “grown-up for her age” comment, generally said with a restrained smile at her parents. As if she has a mental impairment, as if Elsa has shown them up by not being totally thick just because she’s seven. And that’s why she doesn’t have any friends except Granny. . .

Granny is seventy-seven years old, going on seventy-eight.  She’s not very good at it either. You can tell she’s old because her face looks like newspaper stuffed into wet shoes, but no one ever accuses Granny of being grown-up for her age.  “Perky,” people sometimes say to Elsa’s mum, looking either fairly worried or fairly angry as Mum sighs and asks how much she owes for the damages. Or when Granny’s smoking at the hospital sets the fire alarm off and she starts ranting and raving about how “everything has to be so bloody politically correct these days!” when the security guards make her extinguish her cigarette. . . .

She used to be a doctor, and she won prizes and journalists wrote articles about her and she went to all the most terrible places in the world when everyone else was getting out. She saved lives and fought evil everywhere on earth. . . . But one day someone decided she was too old to save lives.

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