Wonder by R. J. Palacio

12 November, 2014


My name is August.
I won’t describe what I look like.
Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

Several months ago, my book group chose Wonder by R.J. Palacio as the monthly read. I couldn’t attend the discussion for some reason and somehow ended up not reading it. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read a novel that I was sure to be sad at the time. But I returned the following months to gushing adoration of the book. And month after month, I would see lots of wonderful reviews of Wonder online. And finally, my nephew lent me the book and I decided to give it a go. And I confess that I was wrong and should have listened to all of you when you told me it was a brilliant book. Because it is.

Told from the viewpoints of the various characters in the book, Wonder revolves around August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, born with severe craniofacial syndrome, and the people in his life. Home-schooled until the 5th grade, Auggie’s life has revolved around his mum and dad, big sister Via and dog Daisy and trips to the hospital for corrective surgery. However, his family have always treated Auggie as a normal boy. Perhps slightly overprotective but he has been cocooned by their love since birth. Until his parents enroll him in middle school for the first time. Via is also starting high school and both of them must navigate the battlefield of the school corridor, making new friends and experiencing the complexities of teenage social life and, in Auggie’s case, trying to come to terms with acceptance and building connections with his peers. There is Summer, a young girl trying to find her place in the social hierarchy who is the first to befriend Auggie from her own volition. Then there is Jack who feels he must befriend Auggie but is torn between his old friends and new. And then there is Julian, who covers up his fear of the unknown the only way he knows how.

What elevates Palacio’s tale is her story-telling skill. She pares it down to its simplest form and creates a warm, funny story about some really tough issues while keeping the focus on the children. It is from their point of view that she brings to life this story that is ultimately about kindness. And because August’s tale is also told from his family and friends’ viewpoints, you get a multi-faceted perspective of a complex life and identity. Reading Wonder makes you realise how kind people can be. And makes you want to be kinder too. And I have to confess welling up several times while reading this book. It’s a sweet story with a really powerful message written in an engaging way. I loved the fact that Palacio doesn’t throw in miracles or an ultimately happy ending. It is happy but you know that Auggie will face many battles in his road to adulthood but he will have his family and friends around him and we will cheer him on.

If you haven’t read Wonder, then I urge you to do so. It’s a beautiful story and will make you more conscious about being kinder.

There is also a new chapter which was published recently on Auggie’s nemesis Julian who learns a lesson of his own at the end of Wonder so do read that too.

Three Fat Men

Published in the very early years of the new Soviet regime and before the horror of Stalin’s rise to power, Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men is considered one of the most important pedagogic books for young communists and an instrument of state propaganda and is controversial even now.

The Three Fat Men
is a satirical allegory, a mixture of folktales with names recalling Shakespeare’s Italian comedies. I’m not sure whether that is to make it seem universal, but the setting is a country tightly ruled by the Three Fat Men who are greedy, lazy and gluttons and who take all the grain, coal and iron from their people and give back nothing. When Prospero the armourer and Tibullus the tightrope walker incite revolution, the Three Fat Men’s soldiers set out to capture them and throw Prospero in jail. Tibullus manages to escape and is helped by Dr. Gaspar, a highly regarded intellectual, who coincidentally is given the task of bringing the Three Fat Men’s heir, Tutti’s, golden haired doll back to life or face death. When the doll is lost, Gaspar despairs until he meets Tibullus’ young friend Suok, a dancing girl at the circus, who is the spitting image of the doll. And so they concoct a plan to get Suok into the palace, save Gaspar and set Prospero free.

Olesha’s tale reminded me strongly of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (even though it is from a completely opposite ideology) and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy with their clear demarcation of right and wrong, good and evil. The Three Fat Men and their soldiers are evil as opposed to the common folk who are being robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Its strong and simple ethical message is hard to ignore and is actually a good tool for teaching children. However, as with many stories in this vein, children would probably miss the communist subtext which for many adults will be hard to separate with actual events and the violent history of Soviet Russia.

Although a very short book, I confess that I found it rather difficult to get into and it only became interesting once Suok was smuggled into the palace when things begin to move quickly. However, there were some very funny moments, such as the reaction of the Three Fat Men and important court officials to little Tutti’s tantrums and, even more bizarre, the balloon seller being dressed up as cake and worried he would be eaten before escaping through a bottomless pot and ending up in a cabbage patch. The message of the book itself is one I rather agree with but I’m not entirely sure I understand why it’s such a popular book when there are more interesting fairy tales around unless you grew up reading it, which seems the case in many Eastern European and post-Soviet countries. I have a copy of the illustrated Soviet version which made me see it more as a children’s book and I will be passing it on to my nephews and niece to polish their moral compass.

As this was a book group choice, we had an interesting discussion regarding the purpose of this book and its construction as propaganda for communism. And it seems especially pertinent regarding recent events between Russia and the Ukraine. I probably liked it the least but most of my book group found it highly enjoyable and it sparked an interesting discussion.

A Wrinkle in Time 2

It was a dark and stormy night.

And so begins Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, one of the best-loved book for children that I missed reading when I was little. I thought I had most of my bases covered as we had an extremely well-stocked library in my British School in Bangkok and even in my tiny International School in Nagoya, Japan. Actually there was a wider range of books there than in my boarding school in England, believe it or not. But somehow, I missed both this and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper.

One of the things about being a book-loving Aunt is that I want my nephews and niece to be exposed to all the books I loved as a child. I was so thrilled to become an Aunt that I bought the whole set of Narnia books for my one year old nephew not realising that it would be years before he would be able to read and that most probably the books would get lost in the interim. But I love that they know I love to read and would talk excitedly about their books to me. And although it’s hard, I try to restrain myself and not push books that I think they ought to read to them because you need to find the books you love yourself. That’s what I did. My parents never directed my reading. There were books in my house and I found them myself. And I went to the library and bookshop myself. They never censored my reading. They were very liberal and I now have very eclectic reading tastes which even they don’t fully understand. And that’s what I hope will happen to the kids.

In A Wrinkle in Time, the first in a quintet, twelve year old Meg is having a hard time. Misunderstood at school and missing her father who has disappeared, she is struggling to keep herself together. Until one night, they receive a mysterious visitor who utters the strange word ‘tesseract’ which throws her family’s life into turmoil. Together with her younger brother Charles Wallace and their new friend Calvin, Meg finds herself hurled into another time and place in order to rescue her father. For a darkness is coming to their world and they will need to use all their strengths and weaknesses to save their loved ones.

I was curious to know about A Wrinkle in Time but a little hesitant to read it as an adult. Sometimes, it’s disappointing as the pace and language is no longer what you are used to. But I was more than surprised to find that I enjoyed the tension and pace of the first volume in L’Engle’s series. And what was even more interesting is that A Wrinkle in Time dealt with quite a few complex issues and ideas that even some adults may struggle with. One of the most impressive things about this book is the explanation of the so-called wrinkles in time which are condensed and simplified versions of space-time and manifolds which were introduced by Einstein in his seminal work on General Relativity. As someone who has struggled to understand the theory as a student, L’Engle’s explanation has a beauty and simplicity which makes it easier to understand. And I loved that Charles Wallace is most probably an amalgamation of Charles Darwin and his rival/friend Alfred Russel Wallace. That’s just too cool.

Apart from the SF nature of the tale, parts of which were reminiscent of Jasper Fforde’s incredibly imaginative Shades of Grey, there is a rawness and immediacy to Meg’s emotions which strongly resonated. Her loneliness, misunderstanding and fierce love for her family, the difficulties of friendship, acceptance in her peer group, these are all things which each of us have to struggle with and learn to understand as part of growing up. I loved the way L’Engle doesn’t whitewash or diminish these difficult feelings.

The tension was palpable and I raced through the book. I can’t wait to give this to my nephew and I hope he likes it as much as I did.

The other titles in the series which I need to read:
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
An Acceptable Time

A Wrinkle in Time