Face value? ‘Wonder’ by R.J.Palacio

After many years of home schooling, August Pullman is facing his first year at school. Like any new student, he is not sure what to expect and how he will fit in. His parents are unsure whether it is the right time for him to start school – they have protected him from the cruelty of the outside world up until now. All of them have been to the school before it starts in order to prepare him for this next step in his life, and buddies have been set up to help out.

The trouble is, August will stand out, due to a facial deformity he was born with. In spite of many operations, he has faced many years of taunts and stares from strangers, and he now faces exposure to a much bigger group of people on a daily basis. Students who don’t ven know him will judge him harshly, call him names and some, even bully him.

The story is told from a number of different points of view – that of August; his sister, Olivia; her boyfriend, Justin; and a school friend, Jack. This helps to show the struggles of people who care for August, along with the joys they have of knowing the boy behind the face. August’s thoughts and reactions in the story are the ones that really make you think.

Problems of fitting in, and the bullying associated with being different in a new situation, are among the issues to be dealt with in ‘Wonder’. The impact on others around Auggie is also one of the key elements of the story. His sister, school mates and others all reflect their position in his life – what they see and how they act to the way others treat Auggie.

Though ‘Wonder’ is probably written for a younger age group (set in grade 5, and with an 11 year old protagonist), there is great value in older students reading this tale. With the different perspectives shared, and the simple way which August expresses his point of view, there are lots of things to wonder about. Do we treat others fairly? Do we too often judge others based on their appearance? How many people are handicapped, not by their own physical disabilities, but instead by the way others label them?

For some, the ending will be wrapped up too warmly – the years of staring and laughing that August has faced being swept under the carpet. However, some of the precepts in the final ‘Appendix’ chapter are worth dwelling on. And if a book like ‘Wonder’ can make people think about life from a different perspective, then that makes it a worthwhile tale to recommend!

For an insight to what inspired the author to write ‘Wonder’, her debut novel, see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/9086974/Interview-with-RJ-Palacio-author-of-Wonder.html

Life of Pi – the book, the audio and the movie

It’s been interesting getting into Life of Pi in a number of different ways, as I have read the book from both a paperback and while driving my car (obviously with an audio version…).

Life of Pi has been on my to-read bookshelf for some time and, of course, came to my attention again recently, when promotion of the movie began. By ‘reading’ using combined audio and paperback, I found an unusual richness was added to the story with the contribution of a quality audio production*.

Martel’s writing is where all the magic begins, however, as he tells the tale of a young Indian boy on his journey to manhood. Pi has struggled for many years with taunting at school, derived from his name, Piscine. In spite of this, (or because of this?) Pi is a strong willed young man with a great curiosity of life and how the world around him works.

With a somewhat unusual homelife as a zookeeper’s son (what child wouldn’t love to grow up in a zoo?), Pi has developed keen powers of observation of animals of all kinds – humans included. This awareness of animal behaviour provides a great background later in the story, when he is set adrift in a lifeboat with a menagerie of different animals. His survival skills are well and truly tested to the limit!

His questioning nature is also revealed as he digs into the 3 main religions which exist in his Indian homeland – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. As a curious child, he seeks an understanding of the differences and similarities of these faiths, and commits to all 3 – much to the ire of each of his religious teachers!

A move by his family, away from the politics brewing in India, results in their journey on a Japanese cargo ship to Canada. Their zoo is dismantled and animals are sold afar; some of which journey on the ship with them. The tragic sinking of the cargo ship begins another section of the book, where Pi faces the many challenges of being afloat on a lifeboat with very unusual company – including Richard Parker!

Martel’s writing is memorable, poetic and so rich that it is believeable. It is a book to make you think long after you finish it. It is fantasy, but also holds many truthful observations within it, and doesn’t necessarily provide a neat ‘happy ending’. As a winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002, Life of Pi has had many reviews over the years, and has now been made into an award winning film (which I can now see, having first read the book!)

What messages did Life of Pi relate to you? Is it a believeable tale? Or is it an abstraction from reality? An allegory about human existence perhaps?

* the Audible.com version of Life of Pi was well narrated – the Indian accent added so much to the story, and made it even more compelling to listen to Martel’s poetic tale.

You can also view the film trailer:

(I have now seen the movie, and while it was great, I do prefer the book!!)

For love & justice – Prized by Caragh M. O’Brien

I found myself enjoying the challenges of ‘Prized‘ before realizing it was the second book of a series. Can I say, it wasn’t a problem to read alone, though I will probably venture back to ‘Birthmarked’ at some stage…

‘Prized’ opens with a young girl, Gaia, struggling across the desert with her baby sister bundled close to her. The baby is close to death when the are ‘rescued’ and taken to a gated community on horseback. In the days to follow, though Gaia and her sister recover, their lives are changed completely as they are separated and come under the laws of the land.

Gaia has to submit to the dystopian order of Sylum, where the minority female community rule, and baby girls are highly prized. Her skills as a midwife are valued, in many different ways, and she challenges the rules of the society with some dire consequences for herself and others.

Will she finally submit to the autocratic control of Matrarc Olivia, as she lives under her close and demanding supervision? Can she adapt to the harsh social rules and regulations in a society where a kiss can have tragic implications?

‘Prized’ brought forward some interesting ideas – some, like the ruling (female) class being the smaller portion of the society, were a bit curious, I thought. But I gave in to the laws of Sylum, accepting the way things were much more than Gaia ever would, because I was captured by the tale Caragh O’Brien tells.

For more on the series, see: http://www.caraghobrien.com/book/birthmarked/