Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Not Your Typical Summer Read

Do you ever find yourself reading a book that you're just certain you won't like?

If you are part of a book club or reading group you might have this experience.  It usually happens because you feel required to read a book.  Why else would someone specifically choose to read a book they don't actually want to read?  (masochism, societal pressure, Oprah...)

Anyway, I recently found myself in this predicament.  Here's the situation:

My beloved book club that I've referenced like 1,000 times on this blog was meeting in July.  I knew I would need to attend this meeting because it would be a great reason to leave my kids for a couple of hours this summer where we seem to spend every minute together.  I felt compelled to read the book.  


In the history of my book club attendance (over a year), I have loved some of the books and liked many of the books.  There was one book that shall remain nameless that was just so terrible I couldn't finish it, but I did go to the meeting to make sure everyone else felt the same way--they did.  

For July, the book was Hum If You Don't Know The Words.  I had never heard of it but I bought it thinking the cover was cool--bright green and yellow with a stamped owl and parrot.  I didn't read the back but I was excited.  

And then it was June and I picked the book up and read this on the back cover:

"Told through Beauty's and Robin's alternating perspectives, the interwoven narratives create a rich tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of apartheid-era South Africa."  

Don't get me wrong--I love many books about Africa and apartheid is something I feel that all Americans need to learn more about.  But it's July and I was thinking "beach read" not "intense historical fiction with probably lots of death and sadness."  


But I started because at my core, I am a rule follower.  

Through the first two chapters, I complained to anyone who was near me (my husband and children) that this was not what I had in mind for a summer read.  My husband said, "If you don't like it, don't read it."  But even in those early chapters I could tell Bianca Marais is a gifted writer and I wanted to see where it went.  

should I go on????

The first third was behind me and I still wasn't sold on reading this book in the summer when I wanted to read about beachy romances.  But I consistently found myself unwilling to put the book down.  "Just one more chapter...I need to know what is going on with Robin....just one more page...how is Beauty going to react..."  


By the halfway point I gave in to absolutely falling in love with this book.  Marais' storytelling was beautiful and the way the characters were developed made me appreciate their dynamic realism.  Every side character had a story and I wanted to know these people in real life.  Well, not all of them, it's about a difficult time in South Africa and some of the people were not nice.  

I've even decided to rescind my previous views about summer reads.  It a good thing--any time of year--to learn about other cultures.  Summer is a great time to read a well written historical fiction novel because everyone wants to know what you're reading and you really get a chance to share an amazing story.  


The book deals with themes we face in the world today: race, family, motherhood, how we overcome prejudice, and what real love looks like--but it puts them in a historical context that adds weight to the novel.  These are not imagined circumstances, this was the reality for South Africans.  

Ok, so now that I'm done gushing about this book that was determined to dislike, let me tell you about the story.  

Robin is a 9-year-old girl in Johannesburg, South Africa, just trying to stay out of trouble with the neighborhood kids.  Beauty is a woman in her late 40's raising her children in a rural village.  They live in different worlds that collide because of the Soweto Uprising.  Their lives become entwined, whether they want them to or not.  They both have so much pain in their lives but it's not the thing that defines them.  There are a million quotes I could pick to spotlight, but I love this one that resonated with me on a deep level:

"I pulled volumes from the shelves, seeking out my favorite authors and my most beloved characters and tales, and piled them up one on top of the other until my arms ached from the strain.  I found an empty table and hefted the pile down, preparing to do what I must have been subconsciously wanting all along; I lost myself in those books.  I don't know how long I sat there for, but as I turned the pages, reading snippets and studying the illustrations, I forgot how sad and lonely I was." 

This is also how I cope.  

Even though the subject matter was heavy and a great deal of sadness, there was a thread of hope that glimmered throughout the book and good, quality comic relief that came in the form of side characters and the observations of a child.  

My book club also loved the book.  We talked about the surprises in the story and the trials faced by Robin and Beauty.  We all agreed we would definitely read a sequel because we had all fallen in love with Robin and Beauty, despite the fact that it's not the "traditional" summer read.  Maybe tradition is overrated.  
summer reading = reading any book in the sun

Is there a book that snuck up on you?  


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