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Did Someone Else Write The Secret Diary Of Hendrik Groen? - Op-Ed Piece
There are a lot of books on my bookshelf, most of which I read when I can, but I never really bother reviewing on this site since, as you readers know, I prefer to take a more liberal approach when it comes to my book reviewing method. Sure, I talk about books here, but I also talk about character development and writing techniques, and sometimes I stray from books to analyze a story itself.
On a Monday morning, I put down this book I am about to discuss here and decided that I would give you some of my thoughts on it.
The book is called The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, and I can say that I would pass on it if I would mention it to others. Don’t read it. It isn’t worth the time; unless you find random insights into the life of the elderly interesting, to which case, you have to get out more. There are a lot more interesting things in the world than learning how some random old guy who seems like a pain in the ass gets his leg amputated or how a bunch of rich old people make a club for themselves because they have nothing better to do with their lives. Don’t get me wrong, the book has some insight, like how the seniors try to figure out the situations by themselves, but after a while, I was wondering if anything was going to happen. It never does.
Here is the crux of the story: The book is narrated by the title character Hendrik Groen, who basically takes us through his daily life as he lives in a senior citizen center. The book is formatted as a diary entry, so each day takes up about a page or so of the insights into the mind of Hendrik. In the center, he meets a few other old people, notably Evert, the wiseass friend, and Eefje, his trusted female friend. We see the world from Hendrik’s point of view, and it is eh. I felt like I spoke to more interesting seniors in my journeys than anything this guy ever came across in his tale.
I am baffled as to how or why this book became an international bestseller. Did all the old people in the center buy the book? I suspect that the whole book is a scam of sorts in that they are deliberately deceiving you with the material presented. Like they made the whole thing up. What are the odds that an 80-something-year-old man writes a diary for a year and then gets it published? Rather, I think the real author, who I suspect to be Hester Velmans, used the old man to make the story more presentable. If I were to write the book as a 30-year-old man, but with the narrator being an 80-year-old man, no one would buy it since I am not that age. There is comfort the reader can get by thinking they are reading the words of their grandpa rather than a younger writer, which is what Velmans is (She is a 40ish-year-old woman). The book claims to be a novel and that all the characters are fictional, so I am not far off with this theory. An author had the idea to write a story of life in a senior citizen’s home, so they, the editors, decided the best course of action was to present it as if the old guy wrote the book himself. Explain this to me, how can the book be a novel and also a memoir? It can’t be because it is not written as if it is real. The whole story is a scripted life of a senior.
The writer has a poor understanding of the English language, little to no grasp of literary devices, and needs to take a few classes on creative writing. The verse has no flow or rhythm to make it captivating or intriguing to read, meaning that I had to rely on the story to carry me through, which is bad since the story is all over the place and, at times is so random that I can imagine the real author of the book, going to their notepad to see if they can put in a few more fun ideas they have about old people.
A book has two things that it can be judged upon. The first is the use of the English language by the author. Some writers are incredible with the English they use and display for the readers to sit down and enjoy, and some stories are known because that author took the reader on a ride, not of the story, but of their words. The author I point to for this is F. Scott Fitzgerald. The man had a way with words; even when his stories were rather basic in structure and setup, you could read him knowing you were reading a master of the language. The scene he wrote of the death of Jay Gatsby is an example of that mastery.
The second thing is the story, which I will spend most of this article talking about. The story, or the thing you tell people about the actual book. Some books have poor writing, but the story is so unique that the book is good just because of that. The characters and the adventure are so different and memorable that someone will want to read it, even if the author writes no better than a high school English teacher. An example of this is the original Wizard of Oz book. L. Frank Baum couldn’t compose a great line if you gave it to him, but the creativity behind the story is so great you have to at least give the book a read-through to see what is actually going on. Anyway, let’s get back to Hendrik and his senior diary entries.
The brilliance of the book is that the audience shouldn’t expect great writing from the guy, Hendrik, so it works. This Hendrik fellow is not a classic writer. You can skip him. You don’t need to read him to further your literary knowledge, so when the author has no transitions with their ideas, the days all seem the same, and the characters come across as caricatures of real people, the audience gives the writer a pass. He is 80 years old, so we don’t expect great writing. If a real author were to take front and center of the book’s fame, then the scrutiny and expectations from the audience would be different.
I have already presented a name for this theory, and the name of the author is Hester Velmans. She is the real author of the book. Which credit to her, she let the old man be on the front cover and act like he wrote it.
Another interesting fact about Hendrik is that he is not 83 years old yet. Yeah, would you believe that? The guy who supposedly wrote the book about a diary of his 83rd year is not actually 83. Go ahead and look it up, and you will see that the year that the 83-year man published his diary, he wasn’t even that age. Yeah, because the story is a bunch of anecdotes that someone would come up with who visited a senior citizen center a few times.
Another misleading element in the book is that they present him, Hendrik, as American, at least from the cover. When I saw the cover, I only saw the face of an old man who looked like every old man I had ever seen. In other words, I thought it was someone I knew. But there are times in the book when I was reminded that the characters are not American. From the names of every character, Evert, Eefje, Hendrik. Is this a retirement home or a class on Norse mythology? And then there are references that Americans don’t care about, like the new pope or the Tour De France. This doesn’t take away from the book, but I think it should be noted that although American audiences may think this Hendrik character could live in a home by them, he is not actually from a home by them. Just to be clear.
I find that lack of regional familiarity is a noticeable flaw in international books, as compared to American authors. The locales of the book are never known when the international author brings them up, which means that the author must reach the audience in another way. The international author will never talk about the local spot in your town, in your neighborhood, or region simply because they don’t know them, so they must connect with you on a deeper, universal level. You are then expected to see yourself in the author’s settings or characters because they were not created in a region or area you yourself know. You see this a lot in the contrast between British and American authors. And it goes both ways. I am only presenting the side where the American audience is reading the international author, but the same applies for the international audience reading the American author.
I have to give the book credit for the thought behind it, as each of my criticisms does suggest the book had some brainstorming and planning involved. These are not random mistakes made by a sloppy editor but calculated risks made by someone who knows what they are doing. What of the story? How do we advance it? Make it a diary. What of the writing ability of the old man? Not a problem since no one will give him a hard time over that. How do we present his nationality to the American audience? We don’t. We let his age and everyman grandpa look be the focal point of the cover.
Now that I have ripped the old bag apart for writing a book that may have helped him in the later years of his life, and I am giving the editor critique that is harsh and possibly unjustified, I will present some ideas on what the book could have done better.
The first is to eliminate the day-diary format. That is useless to the story. It doesn’t help anyone. If you wanted to make the story a novel, then make it a novel with chapters and not silly dates; that only shows the author really was lacking in skill, as my review of the book is longer than an average day’s diary entry. You can argue that this format makes it easy to pick up the book whenever you feel like it because in order to complete a section, you only have to read a page or two, but I disagree with this stance.
Second, direction. Give the damn story direction. The book is all over the place. There is the thing going on with the club Hendrik made; then there are the problems with the other seniors, and then the issue with the woman who runs the place. Pick a main story and have that be the story. There are too many sub-plots and not enough time devoted to the main story, which I guess you can say is the creation of the group.
It would have been much better if the book decided to have more time in certain areas with the old people rather than showing only screenshots of their lives. I feel like just as I am about to like the characters and what they are doing, the journal entry for that day is over, and the story is moving again. Maybe they should stay a little longer with the creation of the group or other moments that are intimate. The irony of the book is that it presents itself as a diary where we are allowed into the world of the old people, but going by the time I spend with each character on a certain day, I don’t get any of that. I felt like I only got shadows of the characters, not the real detailed versions that would have made the whole book better. Fewer days, but more intimate moments in those days.
Here is how I would have advised the actual writer of this book, which, keep in mind, I don’t believe is the old guy who wrote it. Focus on the group they create. That is fun. That can be something. That is the heart of the book and where we can all get to know the seniors the most. There was one part where the book even says the group had a night of songs, dancing, and fun. Don’t tell me that! Show me the night of the fun! Have about ten days where the author and his senior buddies are off on their trips, but instead of treating those days with kid gloves, go into detail on every aspect of the day. Why is the book in such a rush to get through all the juicy parts? It reminded me of when I worked in retail, and some items would sell a lot and some not as much, and the bosses would always worry about the items that didn’t sell when really they should have been focused on the items that sold, and get the most out of them. Give the bestseller room so we don’t run out of stock of it, rather than giving an item that never sells the same amount of space as a bestseller. Give the juicy, meaty parts of the story that show off the writer’s ability and the character’s attributes the most of your attention. The guy in the book made a club, and yet the book spends as much time on other pointless tasks that add nothing to the story.
Another thing I would suggest is to eliminate the story about the strict owner of the senior center who gives the seniors a hard time. Nobody cares about her. In some people’s eyes, she may be the hero too since, remember, we are talking about seniors who can get to be annoying after afterwhile. Unless the story plans on giving the owner some time to develop and for us to learn about her motives, get rid of her since the mention of it only takes away from the purpose of the story.
Don’t get too crazy with adding the side characters of old people. The group already has a handful of members, so why is the book so keen on adding more old people to the story? The book could have added a table for the Norse gods, Odin and Thor, while they were at it, since they seemed interested in adding as many old people to the story as possible. A story is not better just because you can cram more names into it by the end.
Make the struggle with the characters internal, not physical. There is a problem that old people have to deal with that can really be explored, but the book never wanted to go there too much. The fact that the world doesn’t care about them. They are all slowly losing their minds, and Alzheimer’s is on the horizon, whether they want it to be or not. That is a great concept to explore, and I appreciate that the book at least tried to touch upon it, albeit poorly. As I said, the book discusses these points, but by the time the conversation starts, the diary entry is over, and we are on to the next day. That is not good writing. Let me be in the room as the friend of the narrator is having his leg amputated or as the other friend realizes she has Alzheimer’s. That is good stuff, but the book handled it poorly.
If there would be another character, I would add a few young people to the story, not as headliners, but as contrasts to the old people. The young kids can then show that sometimes the old people are kind of crazy. The book is very biased in its own take on the senior citizen situation. You know, the receptionist or nurses at the center have some funny thoughts on the whole senior citizen center and how the characters act, but we never hear from them. Even hearing from a doctor who treats the seniors would be interesting.
Another thing I would consider is to make the diary entries more unusual and spontaneous. If these are the diaries entry of this old man, then this guy must be one of the most boring people I have ever read. Everyone writes random things in their diary entries, but do you know what people also do? They make the diary their own through images and other manipulation of the book. What I mean is that when I wrote a diary entry, I always had a few pages with drawings or underlined words, or parts that I knew I could identify as my own, parts that make the diary special to me, not because of the observations but because of the appearance. Why did the old guy not try anything fun in his diary entries, like drawing pictures of the people at the place or making up songs for some of the events he attended? The main character doesn’t even seem to enjoy writing his own diary entries, which makes it hard to see him as nothing more than a boring hero. It is a shame because I know old guys that are interesting, and if I were to read their diaries, I am sure I would be happy to find their creativity to them since the old guys may not be Picasso or DaVinci with their sketches, but they are showing the enjoyment one can get out of having a diary. You are sitting there with a blank piece of paper, no actual direction or even purpose for your words, and all you do is stick to the basic events that happened in your day. Wow. This Hendrik must be boring if he couldn’t even find a way to make his diary entries interesting.
Talking about the personality behind the entries, I find the book sanitized how old people really are with one another so that we don’t view them as the cruel, mean people they can be sometimes. What I mean is that I don’t recall many of the seniors being mean to people for no other reason than to be that way. In a senior citizen center, I am expected to believe there isn’t one senior citizen who is a racist or says some other awful things about certain groups for no other reason than they are old. We all know that seniors do this, and we all ignore them because they are close to death, and we feel bad for telling them it is not okay to call African Americans negroes anymore or that you can’t say those things about Jews or other ethnicities. We all hope that someone in the family quietly instructs the senior that times have changed and you can’t go around calling someone a retard like they used to when they were a kid. But does the book ever show that ugly side of seniors we all know exists? No. The book avoids this since, if this is included, it paints the seniors in a bad light, making their claim that the place is bad and hard to live in difficult to swallow. Yeah, Grandpa just went on a rant about gays and Jews, and we tried to convince him times have changed, and he thinks that is the problem. I am not sure how to make out the complaints Grandpa had about the lunch food now. Although I would be interested in reading a book where the old man is more in-line with Archie Bunker than a generic old man, with no problems with other groups, I don’t know how much other readers would read it. Does making Grandpa say mean things about certain groups more realistic? Absolutely. Does anybody want to read about that in a story? No. Hence, why the book made Hendrik about as bland of an old man as they could. If they give him too many opinions, he may end up saying things he will regret.
I will continue to trudge through this book until the end, even though, if I am honest, I don’t want to. I will see if Hendrik and his pals have fun at some of the gatherings they have. But all and all, if you were to ask me about this book, I would say pass. The book missed an opportunity to discuss important matters regarding the mental health of the senior citizens in a center. The insights are nothing more than jokes you would hear from a comedian who just visited their grandpa in Florida. My theory that the old guy didn’t even write the damn thing is more interesting than anything the book has to offer.
Did you read this book? What did you think of it? Have other books you would like us to review? Let us know.
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About The Blogger
Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on pensandwords.com. His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes the reader shares that passion.
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