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The Last Book I Finished [Secret Life of an Expat]

Hey everybody, after a somewhat longer than intended leave of absence, I’ve come back to Fierce and Nerdy. Upon my return, I was both pleased and worried to learn that my first column in months would be for Book Week. Pleased because, well, who doesn’t like books? And worried because I haven’t finished a book in a while. By ‘finished,’ I mean finished reading, because I’ve been so busy finishing the fifth draft of the novel I’m writing, the one I started two years ago, and writing (or trying to write) the one, two, and four page synopses, the hook, the tagline, the elevator pitch, the back cover copy, the query letters (god help me), and rewrite over and over the first page, the first three pages, and the first chapter, that I haven’t had much time. This is a particularly lame excuse for not reading, I know, because one primary requirement of any aspiring writer is to read, read, and read!

Actually, it’s not that I’m not reading, I’m just not finishing. I’m currently in the middle of two books about kids and death. The first is The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It’s lovely and dark and I’m always a fan, but for some reason Gaiman’s voice in this one seems particularly stuffy and maybe my internal word centers have become too ‘Frenchified’, but I’m having a hard time cutting through the British. The other is Damned by Chuck Palahniuk, who I adore, and it’s interesting in that it’s about a 13-year-old in hell. The setting and geography are wonderfully inventive, and I’ve always loved the way he tells a story, but at 33%, I’m still not sure what this one’s about.

So I’ll talk about a book I read a while ago, all the way to the end. It was Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue. I didn’t so much choose this book as have it crammed down my throat by Amazon, because every time I went there, Room popped up in my list of recommendations. The thing is, living in France, I’m somewhat out of the loop pop culture wise. I didn’t know what it was, or about how successful it’s been. The brightly colored crayon cover caught my eye, and for a weeks I’d glance at it and say “Oh, it’s Room,” until I finally read the book description and found out that it’s told in the first person voice of a five-year-old child. That should be interesting, I thought, and useful for someone who intends to write for kids. The thing is, the boy, Jack has only ever lived in one room because his mother was kidnapped and held hostage in said room for years. Jack is the product of their captor’s nightly visits. Not a cheerful premise, but fascinating to me.

I was stricken by how well Donoghue told her a story through the very tight filter of a five-year-old child who’s never even been outside. You can see what his mother is like by their conversations, you can tell what he’s learned by the way he talks, the things understands and doesn’t understand, the way he thinks about things. It’s all there, emotion, place, setting, backstory, everything is clear through the voice of this child. In a recent manuscript review at a SCBWI conference, I finally understood the concept of communicating your character’s emotional experience through description and setting, and now that I look back on Room, I really see how effective it can be.

One time at grad school I watched a film about a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas. The director’s intention was to make a feature length film about a character that is actually a supporting character. It was appropriately difficult to understand, highbrow and artsy, and I think I fell asleep during the 17 minute card shuffling montage, but I’m reminded of that film when I think about Room. We never left Jack’s interior, he was the filter for the story, but I didn’t connect to Jack, I was more interested in his mother. When I turned the page I wanted to know what was happening with her. I was curious about her, and concerned. Jack was deeply concerned about her too, he loved her as any five-year-old would love his mother, and maybe I absorbed his attachment to her as he told me the story. Or maybe I just couldn’t relate to Jack, because he was so different, because he was five. Either way, it’s a very great read and in my opinion, a very unique book.

But this is just my opinion. There must be some out there who found the five-year-old voice off putting, manipulative, or contrived. Have any of you read Room, and if so, what did you think?

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