Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Weeks with My Brother - Review

It seems that the world has turned upside-down in the past few weeks. Two books were sitting on the coffee table, one authored by Nicholas Sparks, the famous fiction writer known for penning heart-jerking titles like The Notebook and The Wedding, the other book by C.S. Lewis. Anyone that knows Katy and I would walk into the apartment and bet money that I was taking in the Christian philosophy of Mr. Lewis while she was on the emotional roller coaster ride with Mr. Sparks. Sometimes things aren't as they seem.

If our visitor were to dig a little deeper, they wouldn't find it hard to justify our choices. Three Weeks with My Brother, the Nicholas Sparks book, was nonfiction, which is usually the only kind of book I'll lay my hands on. And the C.S. Lewis book was third the "Chronicles of Narnia" series. Fiction - just like Katy likes.

I recently discussed with a friend how the storytelling ability of fiction writers can be put to use in nonfiction works to make true stories take on the transient and entertaining aura of fiction. Peter Hessler, one of my favorite authors, does this in his writings about China, and I think Sparks employs the same technique in Three Weeks. As you could expect from his novels, the book was both depressing and poignant, but unlike his usual genre, this time Sparks was talking about his own life.

The original draw of the book for me was the premise implied by its title, that Sparks and his brother would be embarking on a whirlwind tour around the world, experiencing and processing new adventures with a level of understanding only available around family. While the trip narrative was not totally abandoned, it was somewhat underdeveloped, providing more skeleton than meat for the book. I was disappointed to find only a few pages in each chapter on Ayers Rock in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India, the statues on Easter Island and the killing fields of Cambodia, among the other places the guys visited. As someone who likes to think of himself as a traveler - at heart if not in reality - at first I wanted more allegory and less literalism and flashback. I wanted these places to speak to Sparks on a more profoundly personal level as they related to his current situation. Don't get me wrong; both Nicholas and Micah Sparks were portrayed as mesmerized by what they saw on the trip, but I wanted it to form the basis of more of the material.

If Sparks lacks drama in the story's foreground, he compensates for it with harrowing true-life narratives, and I found myself utterly engaged by the gritty and harsh reality of his family history. Using the trip experiences with his brother as springboards that had his family neurons firing, Sparks reaches back into childhood to develop the characters and events that profoundly shaped his life. As it flows, the book takes place on two levels: On the surface, Sparks slowly flees the busyness and workoholism that plagues his life in the present. Just below, he weaves a contemplative framework of the events that bring him to this point of the journey.

Tragedy after tragedy ensues, to the point that I wondered whether Sparks has forgotten that he's writing nonfiction. By the end, the book has morphed from travelogue into a sibling-focused autobiography that reminds us of our dire need for community and shows that hardship, when endured together with other human beings, forges bonds that would not have been possible in times of peace and contentment. Because of their struggle together, Nicholas and Micah have a relationship that transcends the normal sibling banter and rivalry. Their brotherly love can teach the Church a lesson: To stand firm together, walking in the faith that something better is on the horizon, brings peace in chaos and allows exuberant hope to supplant apprehension. Sparks' past may be dim, but his future, at least in his mind, is bright.

Guys need not emasculate themselves, as one of my friend's suggested, to enjoy a Nicholas Sparks book. In fact, if we take Three Weeks seriously, we may find a deeper level of masculinity within its pages, the kind that admits faults and cries on the shoulder of a brother. Call it sissy, softy or whatever, but we need that kind of humility among brothers in the Church. Sometimes, like Sparks, our brothers are all we have.

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