Yes, it’s another “I did something for a year and got a book contract!” books. And yes, it has the obligatory blurb from A.J. Jacobs. But I still enjoyed it. Call me a sucker (though a bitter sucker, since I still haven’t figured out the year-long challenge that will get ME a book deal), but as long as the book is well-written, I’ll dedicate a few hours of my time to finding out what someone else dedicated a year of theirs to.
In a lot of ways, this is the lamest project yet, and yet the book is more enjoyable than you’d think. Gretchen Rubin, a not-particularly-unhappy writer, decided to dedicate a year to learning about happiness, and to making and following resolutions that would help her be happier. She didn’t travel anywhere or uproot her life in any signficant way — basically, each month she just focused on things that would help to make her a happier, better, more productive person. And it worked.
Little Princes is the story of a young American, already working in the field of international development, who becomes involved in a much more hands-on way when, as part of a trip around the world, he spends some time volunteering in an orphanage in Nepal. There, Conor Grennan not only got to know and love the children under his care, but also learned more about the problems of child trafficking in a country torn apart by civil strife.
After he leaves Nepal, Grennan is haunted by the memory of a group of children separated from their families, and vows to reunite them with their parents if he can. Fulfilling this promise involves starting a charitable foundation, returning to Nepal, opening a children’s home, making a gruelling trek into the countryside, and, incidentally, falling in love. Along the way, Conor — an engaging writer and does a believable job of portraying himself as a likeable but rather shallow guy who initially thinks volunteering in an orphanage will sound good when he’s trying pick up girls in bars — learns lots more about the plight of Nepal’s children, and also about himself. This is the kind of memoir that’s great to read because it’s like a travelogue as well as a personal journey — I knew so much more about Nepal when I had finished the book, but it was interesting mainly because I had such an interesting tour guide.
My only disappointment at the end of the book was finding out the Grennan, while still involved in working for the children of Nepal (in fact, some of the proceeds of book sales go to the foundation he set up) is living back in the US now. I kind of hoped the story would end with him in Nepal, because he really seemed to belong there.
This is the first Ken Follett book I’ve read. Everyone seemed to be raving about Pillars of the Earth last year, and I didn’t read it, but after I gave my dad Fall of Giants for his birthday I decided to read it myself (on the e-reader, to spare wrist strain — it’s a hefty tome!) and that was a good decision.
Let’s be clear first about that pesky distinction between commercial and literary fiction: this is clearly commercial fiction. When it comes to historical fiction, Fall of Giants doesn’t have anything like the literary ambition of a book like Wolf Hall or The Book of Negroes. There is no particular beauty to the language and absolutely no subtlety to the characterization: characters do and say exactly what they mean, and in case you miss it, the narrator will helpfully tell you what they’re feeling. This is simply, straightforward storytelling, and if you don’t expect Follett to deliver more than he promises, you’ll enjoy this World War One epic, which is the first in a planned trilogy.