Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for August

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian lyricist and novelist, was born on August 24, 1947.  His novel Veronika Decides to Die is highlighted as the Literary Birthday Book Review for AugustThis sounds like a grim story based on the title alone, but it is actually a story of redemption.  What begins with a depressing start, ends with a joyful ending. 

Once I became attached to the character, Veronika, I had hope with every page that her situation would improve.  At 24 years of age, Veronika should be enjoying her youth, but instead she feels she has already done everything important in life and what will happen from then on presents a bleak outlook.  She methodically takes an overdose of pills in order to kill herself, but is instead rescued and put in a mental hospital for depression. When she wakes up and realizes that she isn’t dead, she is told that the pills have damaged her heart and she will die within weeks. She tries not to become too involved with other patients. She doesn’t want to experience feelings and look for reasons to live again. She has decided to die and now it will just take longer than she thought it would. 

BUT as quoted in the book: "An awareness of death encourages us to live more intensely." She experiences a revelation and makes a connection with one patient, Eduard, which reverses her death wish. The irony is that her death is eminent, and now living has more meaning for her than ever.  *SPOILER ALERT* There is a twist in the tale that allows her to live. Her psychiatrist is researching new treatments and her case comes just in time to prove his hypothesis. 

In Coelho’s notes on what inspired him to write this novel, I learned that his past experiences as a mental patient played a significant role in understanding depressions and treatments. In fact many of the scenes describing Eduard seem based off Coelho’s own life. 

One part of the story, which I thought provoking, was when Eduard mentioned that his parents put him in the institution to fix his mental state and fit their mold. They didn’t want him to be different (an individual). They thought the treatment would make him more rational and accepted by society. But the fact is that history of his hospitalization is exactly what made him stick out and become different from others. For some faulty reason, in his parents' eyes, being different was terrible. 

Veronika Decides to Die deals with the subject of madness, and readers will see this in various degrees as other characters living in the mental institution are introduced.  This book allows the reader to reevaluate the importance of life, and reflect on Coelho's words “collective madness is called sanity.”  I think this reality illustrates that madness can incite a person to extreme joy or anger.  But when connecting with others, these emotions can be shared, and somehow that connection validates our reason for living.  When you get to a point in life where you wonder “what is the point?” you have to know that things will change with time.  This reminds me of a lyric from a favorite song of mine by Townes Van Zandt, “to live is to fly, both low and high, so shake the dust off of your wings and the sleep out of your eyes.” 

My book club friends visited to watch a film based on this book, and despite minor differences in location, the film closely follows the story.   Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, as Veronika, the movie is available on Amazon Prime.   When looking for a dish to complement this book’s discussion, we found no food mentioned in the novel.  We did notice that in the film Veronika longs to once more visit her favorite taco stand and have a Guinness beer from an Irish pub.  Everyday things like this we might take for granted.  This book reminds us that it is important to have an awareness of life and treat every day as a miracle.

This month’s children’s book “to read before you grow up” is Five Children and It. It was written by Edith Nesbitt, who was born on August 15, 1858.  Nesbitt is described by her biographer as the “first modern writer for children” combining realistic, contemporary children in a real-world setting, with magical objects.   Five Children and It was published in 1902, the first in a trilogy, and has never gone out of print. It originally came out as a series in “The Strand Magazine,” a monthly periodical published in the United Kingdom that showcased short fiction and general interest articles.

My grandson and I listened to this story as an audiobook, using NC Kids Digital Library (free access with a library card) while driving to Memphis, TN.  It is also available online as a print read through Project Gutenberg.  The book was also made into a BBC television series, and can be found on YouTube.

The children in this story are brothers and sisters from London who have been sent to the family’s countryside home in Kent while their parents are away on business.  Under the “supervision” of household servants, they basically are free to run and explore the outdoors.  There are two boys, two girls, and a baby brother a.k.a. The Lamb … he is, of course, “precious.” 

As the story begins, the children are discussing the earth’s round shape, and are in the process of digging to Australia.  I remember, as a child, trying to dig through to China.  I guess the concept of depth is something that kids have trouble realizing.   What they do discover is a Psammead: a prehistoric sand fairy, or as the title of the book states, an “It.”  The children learn that this creature will grant wishes, but the wishes only last a day. 

The book’s introductory chapter is followed by ten wishes, for a total of eleven chapters.  This makes it easy to read each chapter as a separate adventure, and for young readers, this is makes reading a “whole book” less intimidating.  The children wish for a strange assortment of things, such as being beautiful for a day (no one recognizes them), to have wings (they get stranded on top a bell tower at the end of the day), and another to meet real Indians (they nearly get scalped).  The “classic” wish for gold turns out wrong too because the currency of gold coins they receive is out-of-date and not accepted. 

My grandson, Dylan, says this is a good book and that says a lot for a 15-year-old boy.  Five Children and It works great for a family road-trip audio book!  Dylan’s favorite part was when the older brother wished that The Lamb would hurry and grow up, so they wouldn’t have to babysit him.  I think Dylan could relate well to this wish, since he has two younger half-brothers that he has to mind from time to time. Of course this wish was a spontaneous declaration and therefore it was “wasted.” The children had agreed to decide together what to wish for and that didn’t always work out.  When this wish is granted and The Lamb does grow up older than his siblings.  He meets a girl coming down the lane on a bicycle and he wants to go down the road with her to a pub.  The children have to find ways to keep him contained until the end of the day so they won’t lose him when he turns back into a baby. 

This book is a hilarious, adventurous, and interesting read.  It is the kind of book both children and adults will enjoy.

Next month’s adult read features The English Patient by, Michael Ondaatje.  Join us for coffee and a FREE early morning movie (film version of Ondaatje’s book) at 9:30 a.m. on August 25 in the luxurious Blue Ridge Movie Lounge.  This venue is located at 17 E Second Street West Jefferson.
Following the event, those who wish, will have lunch and discuss the movie and book. 

Visit this link for online discussion and information about The English Patient. 

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