Holes (Louis Sachar) – Did I dig this book?

So this year, Holes, the winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal is our selected reader for Grade 7. Here’s my review for you to chew on.

Stanley Yelnats did not steal those shoes, I repeat, they fell from the sky. He never needed to dig holes in the ironically named dry wasteland that is Camp Green Lake. This was all the fault of his” no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.”

Stanley Yelnats has an interesting family history, from the pig-stealing Elya Yelnats to Stanley Yelnats (the II) who got robbed by the famed outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow. His story wraps up the tale of bad luck following his family for generations. He is an intriguing protagonist with a different body type and a mindset worth thinking about.

First off, the very real bullying problem. Stanley is overweight, and would be the first to admit it. For this he gets bullied by a puny short kid, however, his teachers don not believe him, revealing a common stereotype: larger kids are aggressive and bullies. Tiny kids can’t be bullies. Derrick (a kid who, on the day Stanley ‘stole’ the shoes, had dunked his notebooks in the toilet) is short and miniature in size , contrary to what most children believe a bully looked like.
And, since we’re on the topic of bullying, another thing the book portrays is bullying well beyond what I thought was its reach. I saw it rear up its ugly head in various circumstances, like an adult bullying another adult, or an adult bullying a child. This is shown during the scenes where the head of the camp, the Warden, repeatedly directs physical threats in both counselors’ (Mr. Pendanski and Mr. Sir) direction and when the counselor for Stanley’s cabin, Mr. Pendanski, never misses a chance to point out the low intelligence of the mute-by-choice, Hector Zeroni or Mr. Sir (the supervisor) throwing an insult at Stanley’s masculinity.

Secondly, can we just take a moment to appreciate Hector Zeroni’s mental strength? A kid whose life until then had just been stealing, ended up being orphaned and homeless and after finding a group of people who could be potential friends, gets shut out from them and is nicknamed “Zero” (quote-unquote, ‘because there’s nothing in his head’) by his cabin mates, and it is religiously used by the campers as well as the counselors. Despite this, he’s in a very good state, both physically and mentally and is the nicest to Stanley, digging his hole when he decides to cover for the group, even though Zero doesn’t share any of the guilt. And even after running away with no water, he still survives and is alive after a little over a day, when Stanley finds him. Have to learn that power of positive outlook from him“When you spend your whole life living in a hole, the only way you can go is up.”

A little problem I had with the story were the plotholes, which were probably intentional due to the corresponding title.  To top it, the author adds the element of slight mystery ..very interesting, letting the reader interpret the story their own way. I found it made reading a bit harder, made me think more. I cant say I loved the style. However, this is my personal opinion and you’ll have to read it yourself to understand.

The best written thing about this story is the friendship that blossoms between the great-great grandson of Elya Yelnats and the great-great-great grandson of Madame Zeroni. A healthy relationship built on the simple basis of teaching the other to read, grows into a strong bond that eventually leads to Hector’s release from the camp along with Stanley and a role model for the kind of friendships we should inculcate today (though not under the same circumstances), in our daily life.

Friendships should be shown openly and are not flimsy sheets to cower under when you get into trouble. This is shown when ‘Magnet’ steals a bag of sunflower seeds and all the boys (besides Zero) are enjoying the change in regime, when all of a sudden someone tosses the bag to Stanley and it open above his hole and spills into it. Their supervisor, whom the seeds actually belonged to, comes over to check on them and Stanley takes the blame with the rest of them voicing their fake betrayal. After coming back, the rest of the boys still don’t appreciate him for covering for them, saying he should have caught it in the first place, while Zero, who doesn’t even have anything to do with the seeds in the first place, has finished digging his hole for him. Later on, the other boys are slightly hostile to him, despite vocalizing their friendship multiple times.

This particular incident and the whole book makes you think about the qualities of friends we have. Are they compassionate? Reliable? Honest? Would they stand up for you? I’d choose a friend like Hector Zeroni any day. What about you?

Another theme is the good old “Whatever goes around, comes around” A rather intricate version plays out repeatedly in the plot of Holes. The family curse , the plight of the town of Green Lake, and Stanley’s readiness to risk his life .. many things come a complete circle. The past keep turning up, to shape and influence the present. Indeed makes you truly ruminate on the long term consequences of your actions…reminded me of the “karma theory” mom talks about often. 

All in all a very different and intriguing book! clearly  a great choice by my school.

 

PS: do leave a line to tell me what you thought about my review

The Serpent’s Revenge (Sudha Murty) – Mesmerizing Mahabharata Gems

I think this book was intentionally thrust into my hands..to get me to take a break from the world of Greek mythology (which has almost completely taken over my life… I live in the world of Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus). Though it’s true that I haven’t read any Indian Mythology since I was six and had exhausted all the Amar Chitra Kathas and Tarangini Series

This book turned out to be a marvelous refresher from the twisted tales of Greek mythology. Sudha Murty’s book The Serpent’s Revenge – Unusual Tales from the Mahabharata is a must-have, enjoyable and thought provoking read for parents and children alike.

This book has well-known stories like Shakuntala to stories that I hadn’t heard of, like the story of the half-golden mongoose who taught Yudhishthira what is a true sacrifice or Vikarna, Duryodhana’s good brother.

One thing I enjoyed reading in the book, is that at the end of the chapters, she tells us about the location of the places in the story or what the names of certain objects and actions are…just a little insight that adds a special something.

Another interesting thing about this book is that it is in chronological order. It starts with the story of Shakuntala, events that lead up to the Mahabharata war, then goes to the stories of people in the war and ends with the stories of the descendants of the Pandavas. 

My favourite story is the story of Barbarika, Bhima’s grandchild, and his three great arrows which could strike down its target, be it even five miles from the shooter. This is because it talks about how vows made out of haste can cause mass destruction, and how life and death is predestined.

Sudha Murty’s  story telling style is simple yet extremely engrossing. (Reminded me of my old favourite Grandmother’s Bag of Stories.. here again I could just not stop at one.)  Do read the Introduction as well.. she has explained many little questionable bits like some figurative exaggerations, boons and curses and punishment by God in her inimitable straight and gentle way.

Speaking of style, the awesome illustrations by Priyankar Gupta set a perfect mood for a book of Indian mythology. He has a perfect blend of sketch, shadow and originality that I don’t see in many illustrated books. The art of Duryodhana at the bottom of the Brahmosarovara lake, using the Jal Mantra to save his life, is my favourite.

In my opinion, this book is directed towards younger and middle-school aged readers of this generation, who -like me- generally re-read the same kind of contemporary books (many like me again and again too!)

Most adults already know most or all of the stories written here, but will still find it a great reading experience with their kids, reading these at bedtime. Both my brother and me loved these stories read out to us on our long car drives on the vacation and at bedtime by Amma. She says it reminds her of her grandfather narrating these to her.

The best thing about this book? It got me and my family reading and discussing the stories and questioning and exploring the behaviour of the people. Questions that  we argued about  included..

  • Is it really okay to burn down a forest and not care about its inhabitants? Effects of  mistakes that follow you for generations..
  • Would you give up a place in heaven for a dog?
  • Why would greatest warriors like Drona and Karna not hesitate to plot and brutally murder Abhimanyu, knowing he was barely a boy?
  • Why didn’t Duryodhana seize up the opportunity and pick Nakul or Sahdev to fight and win the war when Yudhishthira said he could choose anyone to fight? ( Another version of the story in the book)
  • Parikshita ‘s impulsive stupidity in a fit of rage or just destiny?

I can say with confidence that just about everyone will enjoy reading this book, whether they know all the stories or not. Do take time out to enjoy these unusual tales from the Mahabharata.

And yes, the Good news.. Sudha Murthy has promised this is the first of a Mythology Series!