Monday, October 25, 2010

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

This is another one of those books that we're supposed to believe is a real book written by a fictional character. No, I'm sorry: the real writings of a fictional character retold by Death.

Sigh... Where do I start.

"The Book Thief" is certainly "hugely ambitious" as The New York Times says, but is most certainly not "life changing." It's Holocaust literature. I hate to be crass, but it is the same old same old. It told me nothing new about the Holocaust nor did it present anything about WWII in a new, unique, or interesting light.

*HOWEVER* I will say that this is an excellent book for young adults (which is what it is and how it is cataloged). But if your mental capacity is beyond that of the 5-minute attention span variety, don't read this book. Well, you can read it, but don't say I didn't warn you.

I have so many issues with this book; the biggest of which is style. Stylistically, this book is terrible. One of the discussion guide questions is "How Does Zusak use the literary device of foreshadowing to pull the reader into the story?" Miserably. He doesn't foreshadow. He has Death literally spell out what happens 6 months or years in the future and then says something flippant like, But I'll talk more about that latter. It's annoying. It doesn't pull me into the story. If anything it's a turn-off.

And I don't need a preview of every chapter. Each section lists the chapters within it. Why? So I can estimate how long the section will be and how much time it will take me to get through it? And there is no fluidity to the chapters. 20 lines, page break. 12 lines, page break. 54 lines, page break. The story is initially told in cloudy, vague snippets. There is no way to piece together a coherent picture of what is going on. It isn't until around pate 170 that a story really begins to be told, and then it takes another 100+ pages for that story to be any good.

For a book focusing on the power of words, Zusak has a pretty poor grip on language. It's like he's trying too hard. I'll throw in a lot of unnecessary swearing and blaspheming because then the kids will think the book is edgy and cool. His metaphors are terrible. It's as if he was trying out the concept of pathetic fallacy for the first time, and continually failed. His images are almost there, and then they fall pathetically and sometimes confusingly short. I honestly tried to overlook it, but after a while I just couldn't; it became to much. Does he even understand the difference between a noun and an adjective? "the darkness sky", "kindness silver eyes." These are elementary mistakes. He's not trying to be new and edgy with language, he is misusing it all together.

Here are some other examples of what I could not ignore:

The book was "like a beautiful itch at Liesel Meminger's feet."
"It chores me."
"His muscles felt like cake."
"something ridiculed her throat."
"a miscarriaged pause" (Is that supposed to be a play on a pregnant pause? Even so, it doesn't work.)
"Her expression stroked the man on his face."

It's just so unpolished and, well, juvenile.

Another thing I couldn't stand were Death's little interruptions. On the whole, they were patronizing and unhelpful.  This one was particularly supercilious:

***An Observation***
A pair of train guards.
A pair of grave diggers.
When it comes down to it, one of them called the shots.
The other did what he was told.
The question is, what if the other is a lot more than one?

Thanks for the painfully obvious not-even-veiled allusion to the beginnings and operations of the Nazi party. I could have figured that out on my own. Also, I didn't need Death to point out exactly why Liesel stole the first book. But yes, maybe because it is young adult literature the author leads the readers more deliberately to his own conclusions.

Death in general bothered me. Don't use Death as the narrator, as a real person. Saying if I want to know what Death looks like just look in the mirror. Giving Death a physical heart. It's too far-fetched. I believe in suspension of disbelief, but that is just asking too much of me. Also, Death's obsession with colors and the half-baked descriptions of a day as a color serve no purpose. Take it out.

"The Book Thief" received monumental praise and several awards; I don't see it. Again, it is a great young adult book. So in that respect I understand the accolades. But there is nothing new about the way this book presents WWII. The mechanics are faulty. If your interest in literature exceeds that of a 16 or 17-year-old, skip this book.

Monday, October 18, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

This year marks the 50th anniversary of this American classic, so I thought it was time to finally read "To Kill a Mockingbird."

This is one of the greatest books I have ever read; it is flawless. I have nothing unfavorable to say about this book. It's perfect.

Using Scout to narrate the book is brilliant. It allows the reader to see Maycomb through her naive eyes, largely ignorant of the classism by which her town lives. Well, that's a little unfair to Scout. She isn't ignorant exactly, but she is a child and all the classism seems unnecessary and silly to her; she can't understand her Aunt's feelings about people. People are just people, their ways are their ways.

I was so enraptured by this book. Lee is an amazing storyteller. I felt I got to know all of the eccentricities and nuances of the people of Maycomb, from Miss Maudie to Culpurna to the Ewells. Lee makes you feel like you are a resident of Maycomb, like you've lived there you're whole life, grown up with a fear of Mrs. Dubose and a consuming curiosity about Boo Radley.

This book is beautiful and insightful and a truly fantastic read. Absolutely read this book. Now! Go get it!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest Blogging

I am a featured guest blogger on Jessie May's blog Blossoming Brilliance Life Coaching. See my post here: So...What Now?

Thanks Jessie!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Letters to a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by M. D. Herter Norton

First I just have to admit that "Letters to a Young Poet" reminds me of the "Sister Act" movies because in "Sister Act II" Sister Mary Clarence tells Lauren Hill's character to read this book.

Also this book makes me wish people wrote letters more often. And was Rilke naturally that eloquent? Or did he cross words out and go through several drafts? His writing is beautiful and personal, which makes me think, Well, Duh! These were personal letters he wrote. But I have to say I have never received an email that can measure up to what Rilke wrote to Kappus.

"Letters to a Young Poet" is the book for aspiring artists. It's one I'd been meaning to read, but would move on, read other things and completely forget about it. But a friend of mine mentioned this book the other day and I said to myself, "Self. I am going to read this book. Don't forget to find it when you go to work tomorrow." And now here I am.

This is one of those books that I am hesitant to pass judgement on because it was never intended to be published for public consumption. These are simply letter Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a young, confused aspiring poet who asked him for guidance. It's personal and yet universal; or as Franz Xaver Kappus writes in his introduction, "important too for many growing and evolving spirits of today and tomorrow. And where a great and unique man speaks, small men should keep silence." In this case, I feel like a small man who should keep silent. Plus, Rilke speaks somewhat harshly of critics in his first letter: "With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings." Yet, in his ninth letter, he says "doubt may become a  good quality in you if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical." Though, this refers to one becoming their own personal critic. However, here I embrace my inner critic and put down my own opinions on Rilke.

Rilke puts so much of himself and so much compassion into each letter, it is full of gems that will speak to each person who reads them individually, so take my own opinions with a grain of salt.

Rilke is quite the Romantic in the literary sense, with his advice to cling to nature and to "go into" oneself. And I agree. There is a lot to be said for solitude and reflection, especially if you are of the creative persuasion. However, I also wholeheartedly believe that regular human contact is a necessity. The trick is to find a balance between the two and know when your mind and soul requires which state: solitude or community.

I like Rilke's assertions about love, that one must know oneself before falling in love so as not to lose oneself in the other person. His response to first love is very interesting: "I believe that that love remains so strong and powerful in your memory because it was your first deep being-alone and the first inward work you did on your life." That certainly rings true. Who doesn't remember their first love?

I found it interesting that Rilke is almost envious of "the feminine human being": "Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper, more human people." Is this because we are less burdened by the trying things in life (in Rilke's time and opinion" and have more time for the necessary solitude to already understand what Rilke is trying to explain to Kappus? I think I am a mixture of offended and flattered.

At times I find Rilke too Romantic and maybe even a little sappy, but he lays out these simple and yet profound observations of, well, growing up. There is so much I could quote from these ten short letters, but I'll leave you with just a few that ring especially true for me at this point in my life.

"[...] be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue."
"[...] rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind, and be sure and calm before them and do not torment them with your doubts and do not frighten them with your confidence or joy, which they could not understand."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Let's Talk Technology

Have you seen the commercial for the child's e-reader which says, "Once upon a time, there were books."

Once upon a time? Books have become the thing of fairy tales?

I know. Books aren't cool. They aren't interactive. They require more than an 8 minute attention span. But come on!

Now, I like e-readers. My library just got to Sony Readers which will be available for patrons to check-out. I think it's pretty cool. It's great for traveling so you don't have to carry tons of paperbacks with you. (Did you know the most common item left behind in hotels are books?) The Sony Readers are great because you don't have to exclusively purchase books, you can check out ebooks from the library, which is convenient if you are house-bound or you just can't get down to the library all that often.

But if we're trying to encourage our future generations to read, why market books as old, out-of-fashion things? Maybe the day is coming soon when schools issue e-readers instead of text books or printed novels, but that day hasn't arrived (yet) (thank God). Personally, I think that will be a sad day. I like the feel of a real, tangible book in my hand. I like underlining passages and making notes and feeling like I form a relationship with what I'm reading.

Maybe I am one of a dying breed, but I like my books. I like the idea of an e-reader for travel, especially if you live in a city and are taking the bus,or the metro, or the T, or the tube to commute. But I still think there is great value in paper books. They may have gone out of style, but there's something to be said for being vintage.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere

by Laura Lippman

I inter-library-loaned this book from another library, so I felt the need to read it fast, especially since it is a new book and I could only keep it for two weeks.

I had seen Lippman's interview with Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show and was intrigued. She talked about taking a personality test and that it showed she has sociopathic tendencies, but she said, since she puts all of those thoughts into her books she thinks she's ok. Naturally I was thinking this would be some seriously twisted crime novel.

Lippman does offer creepy insight into the mind of the rapist/killer, especially when it comes to his way of thinking and the justifications for his actions. But, on this whole, this book just didn't push it far enough for me. If I'm reading a suspense-type novel about a rapist contacting his one victim who got away (or whom he let go, rather), I want it to be seriously disturbing. By the way Ferguson and Lippman spoke about her book, I thought it was going to be far more twisted. Unfortunately, Lippman's novel falls short for me.

She spends too much time on the exposition. I don't care that much about Eliza's life now, or then as a child. If anything, Lippman should have worked bits of that among the story of the creep and when he kidnapped Elizabeth. There was too much time devoted to, frankly, boring details that I could have gone without - about Eliza, her sister Vonnie (weird name, by the way, then again so is 'Iso'), Mrs. Tackett, etc. I was more than halfway through the book and dying to hear more about Walt Bowman and Barbara Lafortuny. Spend your efforts on the good stuff! I know you're trying to get me to connect emotionally to the victim/s and care about their well-being, I understand that as a reader right off the bat, you don't need to spend so much time spelling it out for me, I get it, now get to the psychopath. It wasn't until about 260 pages in that I really became invested and was eager to know what was going to happen, and ultimately I was just disappointed.

Also, I don't understand the point of dividing the book into parts and naming them after popular 80's songs. It seemed arbitrary and without purpose. It makes me wonder if her editor said anything. In her notes she mentioned that she watched a lot of 1985 MTV music videos while researching/writing the book; that's not enough of a reason to include them.

In the end, I gave a little nod to Eliza and though, 'Good for you.' Beyond that, I really don't care about any characters in this book. Mrs. Tackett was a total bitch, so kind of was Barbara, so was Walter, blah blah blah. At least Eliza changes because of her ordeal. But really, this book leaves me feeling luke-warm.

Though this book did make me think of "The Life of David Gale" (a truly excellent movie). They're somewhat related theme-wise. However I much prefer "The Life of David Gale" to I'd Know You Anywhere.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace

directed by Frank Capra

This play/film is supposedly loosely based on the convalescent home in Windsor, Ct and Amy Archer in the early 1900s (see The Devil's Rooming House). But, truly, there are no similarities.

"Arsenic and Old Lace," written by Joseph Kesselring, is a dark comedy about two old ladies - sisters - who take in one boarder at a time, a lonely old man, and kill him, practically instantly, with a concoction of elderberry wine, arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide, as a favor, a service to the lonely man and to the community. And then it gets screwy. It's funny, but it is beyond ridiculous. I was with them until the bit about Jonathan and Dr. Einstein. Then it got a little confusing and nonsensical. I also think this would be funnier to see as a play, as opposed to the film version.

Kesselring was perhaps inspired by the Windsor, Ct murders, but that is where the connection ends. I don't know why M. William Phelps dwelled on it in his book.

It's a loony movie. See it or don't. I'd say it's worth it just to look at Cary Grant.