It’s a Word-Nerd Kind of Summer
Back in February I wrote my Ode to February…a bleak month in many senses coming as it does in the middle of winter–a month which needs as many odes as it can get to cheer itself up as it shrugs off the financial drains of Christmas along with the regrets of January’s broken resolutions. Poor February, sluggishly crawling along in its winter coat, never quite believing that there will ever be another spring. But that was six months ago. Spring arrived just as it always does. And now we come to August, an altogether different affair as for years this month has signalled the complete freedom of our summer holidays. An entire month not nibbled away at either end by homework and assignments. Yay! No more school. No more college. Its days are long and sunshine-filled. It is robust and healthy and needs no odes to feel good about itself.
So how do you fill these long sunny days without the structure of school or college? Well, if you’re a word nerd like me, you take the time to do projects and read books, of course! Oh happy days, August, thank you! But what to read, I hear you cry. Well, how about these five offerings, brought to you (in no particular order) courtesy of the month itself, for they all have August-named characters waiting to entertain you.
Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene
This hilarious novel charts the travels of Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager who up until now has lived a suffocatingly safe life, and his elderly but eccentric Aunt Augusta whose life, in direct contrast, has been wildly adventurous. Henry’s safe cocoon is blown wide open when he reconnects with this woman, the catastrophic chaos starting when the urn containing his mother’s ashes is used as a dope container for Aunt Augusta’s lodger and lover. Well, the book was written in the late sixties after all.
Augusta persuades Henry to leave behind his dahlias and the rest of his safe suburban world in order to accompany her on her adventures, giving the pair of them a chance to reconnect after fifty years apart. Travelling to Paris and Istanbul and South America, Henry learns about this free-spirited relation of his. Augusta is the original wild-child, having affairs and children out of wedlock, mixing with hippies and war criminals, showing a complete disregard for authority and laws and many of the social norms of the time. Given that she is in her 70s, she’s not exactly your typical elderly aunt from the 1960s. In fact, as Henry is about to find out, she’s not really an aunt at all…
But don’t take this amoral auntie too seriously. The book is great fun and a good summer read!
Wonder by R J Palacio
Wanting him to experience as normal a life as possible (hard when you have had 27 operations on your face to date), his parents have now enrolled their son in Beecher Middle school at the start of the new academic year. All Auggie wants from this is to be treated like everyone else, but that might be a tall order for a ten-year-old kid who looks nothing like his classmates. And as you would expect, the children react in different ways to the boy with the facial deformity. While he makes some good friends, most closely with Jack and Summer, another boy, Julian (who the headmaster has assigned to help Auggie fit in) sets about bullying him.
What is most wonderful about this book is its complexity. It is not just a question of Jack and Summer = good and Julian = bad. We all have times when we act less than heroically, when we side with the wrong people through our own desperate need to fit in. And so do these characters: Jack allows himself to join in with the bullying at one point and Auggie’s older sister, Olivia, also struggles at times to be her own person whilst also being the sister of the boy with the facial disfigurement. Then Julian’s friends unexpectedly come to the rescue one night in the woods when Auggie is being beaten up by older boys. There is good and bad in everyone, clearly.
This novel is heartfelt and thought provoking and will most certainly make you cry. But that’s all right. It’s just the mark of a really excellent book!
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Now, talking of crying…what better subject to shed tears over than kids with cancer? But what a book! This young adult novel is a love story between sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster and seventeen-year-old Augstus ‘Gus’ Waters who meet at a cancer-support meeting that Hazel’s parents have forced her to attend.
After a rocky introduction, the two hit it off and agree to lend each other a copy of their favourite books. Hazel gives Gus a book called “An Imperial Affliction” by her favourite author, the reclusive Peter Van Houten. “An Imperial Affliction” is a book about a girl called Anna who is also afflicted by cancer and whose life appears to parallel Hazel’s own. Gus is intrigued by the novel and its frustrating lack of conclusion, but more intrigued by Hazel for whom the book is so important, and with whom he is clearly falling in love. And what better way to show your love for someone than to use your dying wish for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Amsterdam to track down the author himself?
You may have seen the film, but I urge you to read the novel. It is wonderful and heart-wrenching and contains one of my all-time favourite lines:
“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly then all at once.”
An absolute must-read for this month!
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
If you liked Huckleberry Finn, or you love the characters of Dickens, then you will surely be drawn to Saul Bellow’s Augie March. Opening in Chicago during the Depression, we meet the March family: Augie and his older brother Simon and their other brother George, who we would describe today as having “learning difficulties” (not a phrase you’ll find in this book). They live in a household with their down-trodden mother and overbearing grandmother, Grandma Lausch, originally from Russia and described as being “as wrinkled as an old paper bag”.
Through Augie’s eyes, the novel describes his scrapes, trials and tribulations as he grows from boy to man, delightfully detailing a series of odd jobs and the host of colourful characters who populate his life. Revel in this very different world…at a time when Sundays saw “balloon pedlars” on the street and one of Augie’s jobs was to go with Mr Einhorn senior to the beach for his daily swim and feed him lighted cigarettes while he floated near the pier in his stripy swimming costume!
I reckon the book is worth reading for that image alone.
And finally, for a bit of light relief, return to one of your childhood favourites with:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Again you may have seen the film–either with Gene Wilder (1971) or Johnny Depp (2005) as the great Willy Wonka, owner of the Chocolate factory–but as with so many great films, first there was the book!
You know the story: eleven-year-old Charlie Bucket lives a poverty-stricken life with his parents and grandparents but is a jolly nice kid who happens to have the kind of good luck that falls upon such jolly nice kids. In his case luck means finding a ten-shilling note in the snow, which he uses to buy a Wonka Bar, and which then just so happens to have the fifth and final golden ticket inside the wrapper inviting its recipient onto a tour of Willy Wonka’s famous factory. As you already know, the first four tickets have gone to less jolly nice kids, namely the TV obsessed Mike Teavee, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, spoiled and abrasive Verucca Salt and gluttonous Augustus Gloop (whom we have to thank for getting this book, however tenuously, included on our August-themed reading list).
In the way of such books from this era, you just know nothing good can come to someone like Augustus Gloop and sure enough, greed leads him to fall into the Chocolate River after which he gets eliminated from the tour by being sucked up into a pipe which squeezes him thin before spitting him out again. Similar nasty ends then befall all our similarly nasty children leaving Charlie and his grandfather to finish the tour safely and learn of the true reason for Willy Wonka’s competition: that he was looking for a successor for his chocolate empire. Charlie and his family now get to live with him in the factory (every kid’s dream, right?) and Charlie goes on to have more adventures in glass elevators.
So that’s August all sewn up for you. What more could you want? Happy reading!