Sunday, December 16, 2012

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

It isn't often that I find myself continuing to think about a book months after I finished reading it.  Even though I'm surrounded by piles of books (yes, physical piles) on my "to read" list, I sometimes struggle to find something to read that keeps me even marginally engaged.  Take, for instance, the books that I've started that have been abandoned on my night stand.  There's The End of Your Life Book Club, a memoir by Will Schwalbe about his mother's battle with cancer and the books they read together during that period.  Despite the good press it's getting, the book is kind of boring. (I feel a bit cold saying that, but it's true.)  There's the lost continent by humorist and travel writer Bill Bryson.  A new friend who I described this blog to said that my approach reminded him of Bryson's writing.  I excitedly went to a book store to check out his work and (despite my friend Althea's other Bryson recommendations) picked up the lost continent, which describes Bryson's journey to find the perfect small American town.  While I love the concept and do enjoy his writing, a small dose of his sarcasm and cynical approach goes a long way.  Where's the joy in his journey?  Then there's the inscribed copy of The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian.  (To Nanette--Mount Holyoke rocks!  Thanks for inspiring my favorite heroine.  All the best, Chris Bohjalian.)  The Sandcastle Girls is about a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke (my alma mater, in case you missed that) and her father who travel to Syria in the early 1900s with the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to bring food and medical supplies to the refugees of the Armenian genocide.  I haven't totally given up on this book but it's slow going.

Which brings me to Three Weeks in December.  Althea gave me this book for my birthday and, on first look, I have to admit that it didn't sound like my cup of tea.  It tells the stories--in alternating chapters--of an American engineer who travels to Rwanda at the turn of the 20th century to work with the British to build the railroad and of an American ethnobotanist who travels to Rwanda at the turn of the 21st century to find an obscure plant that has five times the beta-blockers of any other pharmaceutical.  If you know me, you can see that this isn't the type of book that I would immediately gravitate to.  And yet, the more I got into the stories, the more I found myself carving time out of my day to find out what would happen next.

Schulman is clever in the ways that she creates parallels between her two protagonists' lives.  It won't give away too much of the story to tell you that they are both outsiders.  Jeremy, the engineer, is gay and struggles in Victorian America to find his place.  Max, the ethnobotanist, suffers from a severe case of Asperger's syndrome that makes living daily life extremely challenging with its constant social interaction.  Both Jeremy and Max love their work and jump at the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to take on ground-breaking jobs under demanding circumstances.  Neither Jeremy's nor Max's employer has, however, made full disclosure about just how difficult the conditions will be.  

Each of Jeremy's and Max's story could stand alone as an interesting and thought-provoking book.  Weaving their stories together, however, creates a sum that is greater than its parts.  My only critique of the book is that the way in which Schulman creates the connection between the two stories seems highly improbable.   Nonetheless, Three Weeks in December is a great read that has the power to linger with you long after you finish its last words.   If you've been nice this year, maybe Santa will leave a copy for you under your tree.   

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