Category Archives: Book Reviews

All that could have been: Mahesh Bhatt, Suhrita Sengupta

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“All that could have Been” is a 142 page turner that leaves you asking for more.It does not beat round the bush and the tight plot makes it a delightful read. The book is about unrequited love. Yet at the same time it is about love that surpasses all odds and does not follow the injunctions of the world.

The book raises many questions for the discerning reader and forces you to question the norms and dictates that govern our society. He questions through the story that why women alone are tied down by traditions and customs. And the men are free from the shackles that otherwise suffocate the lives of women. It is in this very strain that the story unfolds. The novel questions the restrain society places on emotions and passions. And why passion is a taboo, a word which only creates dirty images and is treated only with sexual connotations. But for a mature person passion withholds in itself several layers of meaning and depends on the people.

Vasudha Prasad is a single mother though married she raises her son single handedly. . She keeps the memory of his father alive for him by writing notes to him and giving gifts in his name. The father in question, Hari Prasad is missing all this while. In the midst of her sheltered life enters Aarav Ruparel, a rich hotelier who has no fixed address. He has lived out of a suitcase and is amongst one of the richest men alive. Fate plays its cards, Vasudha and Aarav’s path cross and the rest that follows is not something they could predict or control.

This is a story of love and sacrifice. Its about all encompassing love that makes existence worthwhile even if lived short. Vasudha’s story tugs strongly at your heart, making you cry between your tears. The connection between Vasudha and Aarav will make you hold your breath and their love will make you feel light. A book that takes you on a ride of emotions, took a piece of me when I finished it. Left me asking for more.

Mahesh Bhatt is truly skilled in narration with never a dull moment. The story grips you from the start since you cannot predict the turn of events. Just when you think you know what will happen in the next page, your thoughts are overthrown by the author in his signature style.

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Custody by Manju Kapur

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This is my first book by the author. And I must say that the book held me captive from the first page. She explores very emotional topics with much fervor.

In today’s society divorce and fight for child custody is a common scenario. Manju Kapur has been described as the great chronicler of the modern Indian family. Thus, her book Custody presents a riveting story of how a loving family falls apart at the seams and all that is left is an emotional and spite-filled battle between the parents for the hearts and souls of their children.
Story: Raman and Shagun have a perfect marriage in the eyes of the society.  He is a market executive at a global drinks company. She is extraordinarily beautiful. But the reality is far from what is shown by the couple. The two are blessed with a son and daughter – life is complete, so to speak. However, things change dramatically when Shagun is introduced to Ashok, Raman’s boss. The loving couple are reduced to spiteful and malicious enemies as they battle for custody of their children. As the children’s lives are thrown upside down, they are forced to negotiate and come to terms with their new circumstances with very little real support from the adults in their lives.Thrown into the puzzle is Ishita – a young woman who has been kicked out of the family she married into because she cannot bear children. Desperate for a husband and child, Ishita will do anything to achieve this. The novel – as it travels through the lives of its characters becomes murkier and also offers a brutal critique of the Indian judicial system that often left me feeling completely hopeless at the forces that come into play and almost whimsically decide the fate of two very innocent children.

What stands out particularly in this novel is Raman’s anguish and anger at the betrayal he experiences at the hands of his worldly wife. Kapur presents him to us with empathy and meticulous attention to detail.Her attention to male characters comes out of her desire to be as balanced as possible in her writing. It is a notable trait of all her work that despite their astute social and political commentary, Kapur avoids making moral judgments about what she is writing about.

Kapur’s writing makes you ponder on certain questions: What does it mean to be a mother? Is a mother a bad mother if she chooses to seek her own happiness? Can a mother be replaced by a mother figure? Is a mother entitled to her children’s love if she is physically separate from them? Though divorce is not uncommon in Asian society today, but in an Indian setting, seems more complicated by the roles of the extended family members- the in-laws with bitter recriminations, the doting grandparents who are denied their weekly feeding sessions, the cousins who seem to be perfectly happy, the lawyer-relative who is caught between legalities and emotional outbursts…..everyone has an opinion. All the adults seem to have forgotten about the child’s inner turmoil; and to me that was exactly what Kapur is trying to convey.

Kapur through her novel opens forth a panorama of the society’s attitudes towards several issues:  infertility is to cast out a wife if she is barren. The fixation with warranting a lady is married and settled, as a yardstick to measure her happiness which filters down to parental compulsion and feeling of low self-esteem. This recurring theme -of what will people say, what will people think is an inherent feature of Asian societies everywhere.

Custody is a novel filled with layers of social and personal commentary that never seeks to judge people’s choices but to illuminate how social values, personal character traits and the legal system can all influence people’s lives in certain ways.

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Lanka’s princess: Kavita Kanè

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Lanka's Princess

Lanka’s princess by Kavita Kanè is about Surpanakha and how individual choices and mistakes they lead to can shape the destinies of those associated with us.

My memory and knowledge of Surpanakha is dependent on the reading of Ramayana while in school , and watching the epic serial on Doordarshan. Even then I was struck by the independent streak in her and thought that the punishment meted out to her was very harsh in comparison to her offence. So when I came across this book my curiosity knew no bounds.

It is an epic task to write a mythological fiction from the point of view of a character who has been maligned and vilified as an ugly monster. All knowledge about her is just that she is Ravan’s sister and when she is disfigured by Lakshman , a war is waged to avenge the act. The essence of the book is the choice Surpanakha makes and the unfolding of the events thereafter. Our choices define which part of our nature we allow to rule our minds. And that is the poignant within each of us. A small anecdote from the Puranas would make it clearer.

When the world was being created, the Devas and Asuras went to Sage Prajapati to understand the meaning of Atman, or the self. The first answer that he gave was a simple one. The Asuras accepted it and left with the confidence that they now had the power to use this knowledge as a weapon. But the Devas, led by Lord Indra were not satisfied with the answer. They kept cross-questioning the sage trying to grasp the complete significance and debating the ideas. This small anecdote from the Puranas defines the essence of an Asura – impatient, hungry for power and impulsive. One can also conclude from here that there is an Asura and a Deva within each of us. There is an Asura which always hungry and never satiated and a Deva which keeps questioning so as not to to be distracted fro the right path. It is our choice of the self that determines the events in our life.

The book opens with Krishna, who upon seeing Kubja, the hunchbacked woman of Mathura, recognises her as a reincarnation of Surpanakha. He reveals to her that he himself is Ram, now born as Krishna and has come to her to rectify the grave misdeed he committed in his previous life – of rejecting her. He begins to narrate Surpanakha’s story from the time she was born as the youngest child of Rishi Vishravas and his second wife Kaikesi. She was born Meenakshi – the one with the fish-shaped eyes. Since her birth she is rejected by her mother as an ugly and useless being. Her life as a kid at her father, Rishi Vishravas’ ashram was desolate, where she is neglected and overshadowed by her brothers. Even as Lanka’s Princess,she is again neglected and side-lined; It is only when she weds and becomes a wife and a mother does she find love and a sense of belonging.

And when all that is lost all that is left behind is simmering angst and bitterness. The later incidents and experiences keep fueling her inner desire for revenge, even at the cost of those few that she loves. She sets into motion the events that finally lead to Lanka’s war and the downfall of her entire race.

Alongside, there is unraveling of events leading to the rise of Ravan as King of Lanka and the ensuing effect it brings on his family, more predominantly Surpanakha’s life. The reader may sympathize with her for being the neglected child, while at the same time despising her for her vengeful tactics. The author portrays her not as a good or bad character, but simply as a misunderstood woman who, in her own eyes, is merely righting the wrong done to her when her one chance at happiness has been taken away.

The timeline is fast and keeps readers on tenterhooks such that you do not lose interest. In true Ramayana style, the author raises underlying questions about right and wrong, good and evil, gender discrimination, and women’s rights. An example of this is the confrontation between Surpanakha and Sita. The very attempt by Surpanakha to tempt Ram was unbeknownst at that time where women were not expected to be sexually active and and open about their own desires. Her boldness is a stark opposite to Sita’s meekness and it comes across vividly in every page where she clearly expresses her desires.

To summarize, Lanka’s Princess may be a mythological retelling of events. However in today’s day and age, when women are still subjected to various forms of discrimination, the author puts the spotlight on a woman’s individuality, her sensuality and sexuality, her choices and her desires, which the society wishes to keep hidden behind curtains.

As one reads the book, one cannot help but ponder whether we happen to identify the Asuras and Danavas that exist among us in the form of molesters, murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. Can we look into the mirror and see ourselves as we truly are, not black or white, but grey also when the demons within us shouts ‘tit-for-tat’ when faced with discord.  What Lanka’s Princess will leave you with is a food for thought. You will spend days thinking whether Ram and Lakshman have been on a pedestal due to worth or the male dominated society list virtues only for womenfolk to follow.

 

 

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Chokher Bali: Rabindranath Tagore

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This book has been under my radar ever since I was a school girl. And I have wanted to read it as it is renowned as one of the masterpieces of Tagore. But before reading I decided to do a background check because it was written some 100 years back at a time when women were relegated to the background as homemakers and mere decorative dolls adorned with jewels to be displayed as an asset. That time widow remarraige was a cardinal sin and widows lived as outcastes.

‘Choker Bali’ was first published as a serial in the periodical Bangladarshan from 1902 to 1903. In 1903, it was published as a book. In its preface, Tagore wrote:

“The literature of the new age seeks not to narrate a sequence of events, but to reveal the secrets of the heart. Such is the narrative mode of Choker Bali.”

The translation I read is by Radha Chakravarty. In the light of the preface I was expecting to read the inner working of the heart. And what I read completely blew my mind. I am not an apt person to be giving a review about such a great author, hence here i am honestly giving only my views about the books.

‘Choker Bali’ literally means ‘a grain of sand in the eye’.  Used as a metaphor for a relentless irritating presence, the title beautifully sums up the story about the bond between the two female protagonists, around whom the whole story is woven. The cover of the book is also  thoughtfully designed, with a subtle suggestion of sensuousness, a thread which runs throughout the story also. Radha Chakravarty with her skillful translation puts the setting and characters into context, and bridges the gap of the century between the writing and the re-telling.

Book: After its release the novel was heralded as the ‘Modern Indian Novel’ as Tagore chose to write about the women characters and their desires. A topic which was left untouched due to fear of society and its lack of sanction to such topics.As such there seems to be no plot when one reads the novel, but a deeper reading reveals otherwise.

Binodini is a convent educated young widow left to fend on her own when her husband dies soon after they are married. As was the custom in British India, she returns to her village and lives there for a couple of months until she accepts the invitation of Rajalakshmi (her mother’s friend) to live with her and her son, Mahendra (who had earlier rejected a marriage proposal with her) in Calcutta. He is newly married to Ashalata (a naive, gentle girl), and seeing the conjugal bliss of the two ignites the repressed sexuality in Binodini, who ponders over how this house, this mother-in-law, this Mahendra, the bedroom could all be hers. Deprived of the love, and jealous of what Ashalata gets from Bihari thakurpo (who she was supposed to marry) and Mahendra (who dearly loves Asha), Binodini is determined to break her family as she attracts Mahendra to herself. However, when she gets to know his true nature that he loves no one else except himself, and would fly away as soon as he senses danger, she seeks the love of Bihari Babu, who himself was denied love when he was supposed to get married to Ashalata.

The story weaves further the relationships of these three and Mahendra’s best friend, Bihari, as they deal with issues like distrust, adultery, lies, and problems between the four main characters.

It is contentious as to who is the main protagonist of the story. Tagore originally wrote the story with the working title, ‘Binodini’, which probably means that he meant the story to revolve around her. However, the fact that he changed the title to ‘Choker Bali’ – a phrase which Binodini chooses to represent the bond between herself and Asha, suggests that both women are the focus of the story, and to also appease the moral guardians of the time.

Binodini is obviously one of the strongest characters. She is well read, proficient in household tasks, is beautiful, as well as a model of perfection. Yet, her being a widow keeps her secluded and away from every temptation. It is foreseeable that a lonely woman who reads as much, and as varied stuff as Binodini would be tempted to put her ruses to work, to test her power over people, to feel the passion she so craves to experience.

Asha is her complete opposite – meek, simple, illiterate, and unable to run a house like Mahendra’s. She has no control over the turn events in her own life – whether it her life with her relatives, or her marriage to Mahendra, or her inability to handle the situation at Mahendra’s house – be it his passion or his mother’s antagonism.

Between the two women, it is Binodini we feel more attracted to. After all, a woman who takes her life into her own hands is to be appreciated and encouraged. Yet, it is Asha, who, towards the end of the book, comes across as the stronger one. She is the one who handles the situation with a courage, which seems to come from nowhere. And yet, when you think of the lives of Indian women, it is not unfathomable. Even the meekest of women gets courage, when she is left with nothing more to lose. The fact that this situation only comes when she loses all she has, speaks more of our society than anything else.

After the reading I wondered if Tagore always meant  for Asha to grow like she did. Or, did she surprise him too, and develop over the period of his writing?

With such strong female characters, the males seemed to be mere props for the story. Yet the story would be incomplete without them ass they are the reasons for the thoughts, temptations, conflicts and clashes. And they are the weakest among all. They neither have the courage to stand up to their principles, nor the grace to retreat from the scene silently. Their very presence only intensifies the situation, sparking more discord and trouble. Between the two male characters, Bihari is the more evolved. Mahendra is the very essence of the Indian male so prevalent even today – spoilt and egotistical.

The book though set in the 1900’s can give any of the contemporary authors a run for their money. At the core of it ,it delves into many aspects of relationships & how a single wrong decision can topple an otherwise peaceful life. There might be temptations enough but are they worth spoiling so many lives? Is jealousy a strong enough emotion to forget all other ties & relationships? The book delves into these many questions & more. It has an innocence, loyal friendship and an unadulterated flavor of love & relationship which is rare to find these days and is not written about in today’s world.

The only disappointment I felt after reading was the ending. After having created such a fierce and independent character Binodini, the end she faces is not apt if one reads from present scenario. But the book being set in the early 1900 had to end in the way it did. But Tagore did face severe criticism for the treatment meted out to Binodini.  In 1940, in a magazine named ‘Kabita’, renowned poet Buddhadeb Basu criticized the just-published novel ‘Chokher Bali’. He wrote, “I can’t believe, this great novel, in the last page, dragged to such a forced and imposed ending. It rendered the total writing lifeless.” Tagore, after reading this criticism, wrote to Buddhadeb accepting his inability to end the epic in a more subtle way, and said “I regret the ending now… you are right. It’s my right punishment to be scolded for such ending.”

But who can stand against the society and expect to be heard!!!!

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The Unknown Errors Of Our Lives: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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This book was published in the year 2001, but I got the chance to read this fabulous piece only now. Every time I came close to reading this book, it slipped out of my hand. But this time when it appeared before me I lost no time in reading it. And what a journey it was. A collection of short stories that focuses on Indian women and their immigrant experience . In many ways, the subject matter is similar to those of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of the Maladies”. Many of the stories in in the book also deal with marriages of different sorts and in different stages: arranged marriages, engagements, deteriorating relationships, hidden affairs, and so on. But the one thread that runs in all stories is the feeling of empathy. No matter where or who, the woman in the story is shown to be empathetic and bound in Indian traditions. She does not give away her roots just to be planted in a new soil. She bears strong roots though planted in a new land.

 

The first story in the book is entitled “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter”. This is a poignant, tender story that stirs your heart . It’s about an old widow who moves from India to live with her son’s family in America. Her son tells her “We want you to be comfortable, Ma. To rest. That’s why we brought you here to America.” Her efforts or attempts to share her stories of India and cook traditional meals and help out around the house are looked down upon  by her daughter-in-law.She begins to feel un-welcomed and a burden, and realizes that her visit was a mistake. Life with her son and grandchildren in America isn’t what Mrs. Dutta imagined it would be. Through Divakaruni’s writing, the reader can feel Mrs. Dutta’s hurt, ache and disappointment,  and alienation at the hands of her own family and the foreign land.
As in “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” the story “The Intelligence of Wild Things” brings up issues of keeping Old World traditions alive after immigrating versus becoming Americanized. “The Intelligence of Wild Things” is about a woman who visits her younger brother, Tarun in Vermont. She discovers that his girlfriend is an American girl with “freckled skin and reddish-gold hair.” She wonders how her brother who “had never wanted to come to America” has become so Americanized while she, who agreed to an arranged marriage in order to move to America, still clings to traditions she learned growing up in India.

“The Lives of Strangers”  is about Leela, a young Indian woman from America who visits her aunt in India. They go on a pilgrimage with a group of women. One of these women is Mrs. Das whom the rest of the women believe was “born under an unlucky star” and therefor shun her due to a fear that her bad luck may rub off on them. Divakaruni does a fantastic job in this story portraying Leela’s struggle with guilt and a conscience that is telling her to do what is right despite what others say.

 

Other stories include “Love Of A Good Man,” a tale of a happily married Indian woman who must confront her past when her long-estranged father begs to meet his only grandson;  “The Blooming Season For Cacti,” where two women, uprooted from their native land by violence and deception, find unexpected solace in each other; and the title story, where an artist faced with her fiance’s past a week before her wedding must make an important decision.
Some stories in this collection are definitely stronger than others, but overall, the book offered an excellent look at the Indian immigrant experience from the female point of view. Each woman was strong and opinionated about how she wanted to lead her life. Her decision was not influenced or forced. All characters are truly inspiring and caricatures of real life people. Surely a must read.

George : Alex Gino

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A lot has been written and spoken about LGBT, transgender, gay and lesbian rights. But has anyone stopped and pondered what if a family member turned out to be any one. Have we really thought how our personal view would be? No, I guess not.

The book has received mixed reviews citing issues like poor style of writing, lack of real plot, poor characterization…and so on. I also found parents to be angry, irate and uncomfortable about the book discussing transgender among kids. Little do they understand that if it is identified earlier the child has much more ease to live life in his/her skin. The early acceptance allows parents the space and advantage of being prepared for the reactions and difficulties they’ll have to face.

For me as an educator, I would say the book hits right in the eye. The book is a children’s novel about a young transgender girl written by Alex Gino. George, a fourth grader, dreams of playing Charlotte, the female spider, rather than Wilbur, the male pig, in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. George auditions for the part by reciting Charlotte’s lines to her teacher, who thinks that George is playing a joke on her. While initially upset, George refuses to participate in the play but volunteers for stage crew. After George comes out as transgender to her best friend Kelly, the two devise a plan for George to play Charlotte during the evening performance of Charlotte’s Web.

Life’s simple moments have been presented with the same simplicity such that the reader experiences each event personally. Certain moments in the book are so well written that they hold on to your hearts and play with them till you happen to shed a silent happy tear. ike when how George thinks about holding the ladder for her best friend, Kelly, after Kelly gets cast in the high-flying role George wants: She “would be Charlotte’s Charlotte, deeply hidden in the shadows.” Elsewhere, the use of  escalating variations on an everyday word — “Oh,” then “Ohhh,” then “Ohhhhhhhhh” brilliantly depict the dawning way George’s older brother reacts to learning that his little bro is actually his kid sis. These moments are drawn with elegant restraint, even if other aspects of the book — like how George’s mom watches soap operas and George’s brother refers to “dirty magazines” — feel dated.

Though the use of theater backdrop to reveal self is an age old concept that happens to inspire people in real life as well. Its a clever technique wherein the child can safely unveil the real self and yet not be held an outcast. Theater allows both kids and adults alike to “be” other people and yet the opposite also stands true. Here one can be true because theater is the only place where we can be ourselves and also be accepted for the truth.

Also the author Gino’s choice of “Charlotte’s Web” resonates for another reason: Anyone who thinks children won’t believe that a boy knows he’s really a girl need only pick up “Charlotte” to be reminded that a barnful of talking animals never confused anyone.

 After reading “George,” I too pulled out my own  edition of E.B. White’s beloved novel and read this line: “Wilbur felt queer to be outside his fence, with nothing between him and the big world.” It brought to mind the ending of “George”: Kelly lets Melissa (George’s name for herself) ransack her wardrobe to get dolled up for a girls’ day on the town. But unlike Wilbur, Melissa is thrilled to venture outside her fence, where she feels like her truest self. Having found acceptance from Kelly, her mother and her brother, Melissa no longer needs to hide under boy clothes. She is free to be MELISSA.
Its a sweet, moving, profound novel with an insightful portrayal of a transgender child who comes to realise own gender identity and then surges ahead to connect with self on real terms.
You can listen to the author talking briefly about GEORGE and reading a short excerpt at TeachingBooks.

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Wonder by R J Palacio

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Well this book has been on my must read list for quite some time. It was recommended to me by a dear friend and I also found it in the recommended list for middle school readers. I just happened to google it to get an answer about the hype surrounding the book. Wonder has been trumpeted as “a book that has made grown men weep” and its justified. The plot not just pulled but yanked the strings of my heart.

I read how Palacio came to write this book. Palacio was compelled to write Wonder after fearing that her younger son (who at the time was three years old) would react badly after noticing a girl with facial birth defects was sitting beside him as they were waiting in line to buy ice cream. Palacio attempted to remove her son from the situation so as not to upset her or the girl’s family but ended up only intensifying the situation. Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” had her realize that the incident could teach a valuable lesson. Palacio was inspired by Merchant’s lyrics and she began writing.

Plot: August “Auggie” Pullman is a 10-year-old living in the fictional neighborhood of North River Heights in upper Manhattan. He has a rare medical facial deformity, which he refers to as “mandibulofacial dysostosis”, more commonly known as Treacher Collins syndrome and a cleft palate. Due to numerous surgeries, Auggie had been home-schooled by his mother, but his parents decide to enroll him in Beecher Prep, a private school, for the start of middle school in the fall.

Auggie visits Beecher with his mother and meets the school director Mr. Tushman, along with three students: Jack Will, Julian Albans, and Charlotte Cody. Although extremely self-conscious and scared of being around kids his own age, Auggie gradually gets used to and even begins to enjoy school. He befriends Jack as well as a girl named Summer Dawson, who sits with him during lunch when no one else would. Julian, however, barely conceals his disgust at Auggie’s appearance, avoids him and often makes hurtful remarks. He bullies Auggie and hates him for the way he looks.

During Halloween, when Auggie didn’t feel like wearing his Boba Fett costume, he wore a “Bleeding Scream” costume instead. Unrecognized at school, he overhears Jack telling Julian in homeroom he would “kill himself” if he looked like Auggie. Feeling hurt and betrayed by Jack, Auggie wants to quit school, but his 15-year-old sister Via convinces him not to. Auggie confides the incident to Summer. Jack notices that Auggie has become quiet and distant; he asks Summer why, and though she won’t divulge the secret, she says “Bleeding Scream” as a hint. At first, he isn’t aware that Auggie heard of what he said and believes that he’s just avoiding him for no reason, so he starts avoiding him too. In December, however, Jack realizes Auggie had overheard what he said and realizes that he also heard that Jack was pretending to be friends with him, leaving Jack shocked. In science class, Auggie and Jack are partners for a project. When Julian asks the teacher if he could be Jack’s partner instead, Jack declines. But when Julian calls Auggie a “freak,” Jack punches Julian in the face in retaliation. As a result, Jack is suspended for two days for his actions. Knowing that Julian would get them both in trouble for bad-mouthing Auggie, Jack does not tell Mr. Tushman what happened. Julian’s mother says that Auggie does not belong in Beecher Prep, as it is not an “inclusion school”, but Mr. Tushman and everyone else disagrees with her. Jack sincerely apologizes to Auggie, saying he didn’t mean to say the stuff he said about him, and they become friends again.

Throughout the rest of the school year, Auggie faces many obstacles, mostly due to ringleader Julian encouraging his “gang” to avoid and isolate Auggie and Jack. (Courtesy: Wikipedia).

I am not divulging the whole plot here because it should be read and yes shed tears like I did. The book has some very important lessons to takeaway: kindness, tolerance, courage in the face of difficulty, family bonds, acceptance and the most important acceptance of self.That’s what the lead August teaches us all. He keeps his head high despite being hurled with abuses and nasty remarks. He smiles back even when he feels his heart is being pounded. 

I recommend it to not only kids but to adults as well, because we too need to learn to be tolerant of those who are different or hold opinions that are against our own. The space to respect and tolerate personal space has to be taught to kids when they are young. These deformities are a rare sight, but the deformities that we have even as normal people should be discussed at large.

Those who wish to read eBook of the same please see:

http://www.lakewoodcityschools.org/userfiles/2658/Wonder%20-%20comp%203_8%20-%20audiopdf.pdf.

Also watch : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXtyQZLzg9M

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