the wonderful world of veena.

12 December 2013

book reviews: cutting for stone; heavy words lightly thrown; the book thief; miss peregrine's home for peculiar children.

Trips to India are always a good opportunity to get in some good reading time, and on my recent jaunt I made it through 3 very different, very good books. My thoughts below, if you're interested...

Cutting for Stone [Abraham Verghese]. Normally I recommend books for my mother, but this was one she had received from a friend and passed along to me. It's the story of twin boys born in Ethiopia as the result of a secret union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. Their mother dies in childbirth and their father disappears, so they are raised by the other staff of the hospital where their parents worked. It follows their childhood and adolescence in Addis Ababa as the country was on the brink of revolution and then winds its way to New York City before eventually returning to Ethiopia.

It's a heavy read and covers a number of heart-wrenching topics, but it was one of the better books I've read in the last year. There are some parts that definitely require a strong stomach to get through, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I was close to tears at multiple points, but it's a beautifully written book and one that will definitely stay with me for a while to come. I left the book in Bangalore with Shonali, but there were two passages that I wrote down:

"We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime. We'll leave much unfinished for the next generation." [written by the narrator, one of the twins]

"The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and the ones you don't. If you keep saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching, you'll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny." [said by Ghosh, probably one of my top 10 all-time favourite characters in a book]

Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme [Chris Roberts]. I bought this one years ago - I think when I was working at the B&N - and I kept meaning to read it but then got distracted by other books [the story of my life, really]. I chose it for my India trip because it was a small book, meaning it would be light to carry, and it seemed like it would be a quick read, which I always enjoy when I'm traveling like that. I expected to find it intriguing, but I certainly didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

You know all those lullabies and little poems you heard as a kid? The Jack Sprats and Humpty Dumpty-s and Jack be Nimbles? Roberts gives you the most probably story behind many of those age-old lullabies, delving into a good bit of British history along the way. For a history nerd such as myself, it was actually quite fascinating. There were a lot dealing with Henry VIII, there were quite a few dealing with stories of William of Orange, there were more than I expected about prostitutes, and then there were others that had multiple possibilities as to their origins. I found it intriguing; I can imagine someone from the UK who's interested in history would find it more so, as they would get a lot of the more subtle references that I might have missed out on. One of the things I liked the best was that Roberts provides a glossary in the back for terms or phrases that non-Britishers might not recognize and marks them throughout the book with asterisks. For someone like myself who enjoys playing at speaking like a Britisher from time to time, it was quite fun to go through. It's definitely an interesting read for anyone who's interested in learning the origins of those lullabies and stories we memorized as children without ever truly understanding. Probably my favourite little snippet:

"Pleasingly for Henry, the fact that the land the brothels stood on was controlled by the Bishop created a link between venereal disease and Catholicism."

The Book Thief [Markus Zusak]. I've been wanting to read this one for a while, and I lucked out the week before we left for India when I found the Kindle version for something like $2 [it's currently $4.99, if you're interested]. To say I liked it is an understatement. It's 578 pages long, and I finished it in roughly 48 hours.

Narrated by Death, it tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with foster parents in 1938 just as Europe is on the brink of war. While adjusting to her new life with her new parents, her life is turned upside down once again when a stranger - a young Jewish man named Max - arrives on her parents' doorstep, seeking shelter. Liesel and Max become friends, sharing stories of the nightmares they both have each night, with Liesel serving as Max's window to the world outside. Seeing their relationship develop was one of my favourite parts of the book, watching as Liesel reconciles her friendship with Max with the German atmosphere above-ground.

The "book thief" aspect comes into play because stealing books almost becomes Liesel's coping mechanism for dealing with stressful situations in her everyday life; while I can't recall every having stolen a book, I could definitely relate to her need to escape into the words when the real world became too much to bear.

There are a number of interesting secondary characters as well, my favourite of whom was Rudy, Liesel's next-door neighbour and best friend. The writing is pretty simple, hence the fast read, but it also has depths that you don't notice at first, and I was definitely close to tears a number of times throughout the book. We've seen before that I am a sucker for books about or set during World War 2 [see my previous reviews of Sarah's Key and Suite Francaise], and this one did not disappoint. My two favourite little passages:

"It was a Monday, and they walked on a tightrope to the sun."

"I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right."

Three very different yet very interesting reads. It was nice to have some variety in my reading material, and it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy all three as much as I did.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children [Ransom Riggs]. Since I completed The Book Thief on my journey back from India, I dove straight into this one. I'd been hearing about it for a while, and I was obviously intrigued by the name, but I'll admit that I really didn't know much about the book going into it. I don't know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't this. And I'm so glad that it caught me off guard.

Jacob is a 21st century teenager living in Florida who grew up believing his grandfather's stories about growing up in an odd home for children on a small island off the coast of Wales during World War 2. When the grandfather dies, Jacob takes his death badly, particularly because he still has difficulty believing his parents when they tell him the stories were all made-up. In order to help him find some answers, Jacob and his father travel to the island to do some exploring. While there, Jacob discovers that his grandfather's unbelievable stories were in fact true and that he has some peculiarities about him as well. The book then follows Jacob on his adventures as he figures out how to balance his old life with his new discoveries. The beginning was a little slow as the foundation for the story was being laid, but once Jacob reached the island, the pace picked up, and I got really into it. There was a twist I didn't see coming [probably should have. oops] about 2/3 of the way through it, and then it sort of ended abruptly. I was upset for about 5 minutes until I figured out that there is a sequel scheduled to come out next year, after which I perked up again.

It's definitely a different book, but I very much enjoyed reading it, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Currently reading:

  • my friend Will's book, which I am editing along the way [it's really good!].
  • Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut [Rob Sheffield]. I read his first book, Love is a Mix Tape, when I worked at Barnes & Noble and loved it, and I'm looking forward to reading his most recent release, Turn Around Bright Eyes, once it releases in paperback. I love his writing, both in novel form and as a writer for Rolling Stone, and his books always provide new-to-me music to download.

as always, happy reading.

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