A New Trend in My Reading - Books That Ask The Big Questions

I recently finished two very different and yet strikingly similar books - Ian McEwan's Atonement, which I was hesitant to open despite all of the praise and suggestions heaped on it, and Libba Bray's Going Bovine, a galley of which I picked up at Random House's booth at BEA. While one is the story of the repercussions of one seemingly small act and the world of World War II Britain, and the other the tale of a struggling teenager with hallucinations and a deadly disease, both address the fundamental question of life and reading: What is real, and what is not, and what does it matter?


Most of you probably know the basic story of Atonement, whether it be from the book or the movie. I'm pretty much the last person in the world to read this one, I think, but I must say, it's not at all what I expected. In Atonement, McEwan turns his graceful prose to one event in one family's history, retelling it carefully from each perspective involved. There are events, there is a lie, there is a coverup, a trial, jail time, a war, a wedding, an apology, an atonement - or is there? That there is a crucial event we are sure of. That there is a lie that follows it we are also sure of. That a soldier goes to war and experiences the horrors of Dunkirk we are also sure of. But then the writer of this novel reveals herself - for it is not written by McEwan at all - and we go back and question everything we have read, for it is nearly impossible to tell where the story begins and the facts end.

McEwan's ability to drive a story forward while simply retelling the same plot points over and over again is uncanny; his ability to set forth the most beautiful descriptions of an English country home and the intricacies of a battlefield is shocking; his ability to make us question everything he has put to the paper is outstanding. This is a sweeping work that goes beyond the interactions of human experience to ask: What is the impact of our perception on reality, and which matters more?

Going Bovine
Libba Bray's book is a young-adult title focusing on a teenager adjusting to life in a modern-day Texan high school - and adjusting poorly, to say the least. He is withdrawn, a stoner, a loner, and altogether makes himself miserable. This is only further compounded by the fact that he is diagnosed with a fatal illness, and is only noticed by his peers when it is announced that he has only weeks to live. From here, though, things get weird: a punk angel/possible hallucination shows up in the hospital room and gives him not-so-detailed instructions on the way to simultaneously save the world and find a cure for his disease. With his trusty sidekick, hypochondriac and little person Gonzo, he flees the hospital and travels across the country to New Orleans, the YA! (equivalent of MTV) Spring Break house party, and through time itself. He enlists the help of a cult a one point, is guardian angel at others, a mad scientist here, a jazz musician, and even a talking garden gnome. Or does he? Or rather, does it matter if he does or does not, as long as he thinks he does? What is life, after all, but a series of remembered experiences?

Bray's novel will touch anyone who ever went to high school in a way we'd like to pretend it can't, groping with the difficult questions of popularity, sexuality, drugs, family life and, the be-all end-all of a teen's existence, mere acceptance. Her story will literally have you laughing out loud and then bring tears to your eyes in a matter of pages, but along the way, it will never fail to impress upon its readers that life is what we make of it.

It was book destiny that this galley landed in my collection at BEA, and it couldn't have landed at a better time. I cannot emphasize enough how much I enjoyed it. An absolute must-read.

1 comment

  1. I am reading going bovine. It's really confusing me, but its still pretty good so far


Thanks for stopping by!