The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

 

via Random House

Sometimes a book, let’s say a seemingly innocent young adult novel, comes along and sucks you in. It enchants you with real, faulted characters and beautiful descriptions. It chews you up, peppering the story with loss and grief, and soothes your wounds with stories of friendship, acceptance and love. Ultimately it spits you out, tears sliding down your cheeks, and you realize that the standard to which you hold literary fiction has been irrevocably raised.

The Book Thief’s back cover sets it up as the story of a young girl who steals books in Nazi Germany. The danger comes when her foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement. The simplicity of the blurb is deceptive, and you realize this right off the bat when the story is introduced and told by none other than Death himself.

 

As is only appropriate when the narrator is Death, the style of storytelling is a bit unorthodox. Surprises in the plot are leaked before they actually happen, but I was surprised to find that those leaks, while shocking, just drove me on in my reading, rather than spoiling the story. Things within the text are described in a way that is wholly unfamiliar. Zusak had a tendency to turn words into objects; “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet…” Death gave life to things as ordinary as the sky; “The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.”

All of these things added to the beauty and complexity of the story, and I haven’t even told you about the plot yet. The story of Liesel Meminger begins on a train. Death has just taken her younger brother en route to their new foster parents. In the first 30 pages of the book, Liesel loses her mother and brother, is thrust into the arms of a strange new family (the Hubermanns), and steals her first book, though she can’t yet read.

As the story progresses, tentative bonds are formed and strengthened, friends are found, and Liesel begins to grow more confident in her new life. The story is full of darkness but its redemption lies in the strength of its characters. Liesel and her friend Rudy could have been kids in my neighborhood growing up. They resonate a believable familiarity that keeps the book relatable in the  midst of incredible events.

A Jew, Max Vandenburg, shows up at Liesel’s house in the middle of the night. The reason, we learn, has everything to do with Hans Hubermann’s stint in WWI, his friendship with a Jewish soldier, and a promise made to that soldier’s widow upon Hans’ return to Germany. Max is the son of that Jewish soldier, and he is now in need of the help promised to his mother so many years ago, and so the Hubermans take him in, hide him in the basement, and Liesel’s education begins in ernest.

Liesel learns more important lessons in the basement of her foster parents’ house than she does at school. It is where she learns to write, it is where she begins to identify with a Jew while his brethren are being marched through town on their way to Dachau, and it is where words ultimately save her life.

Bottom line: In spite of The Book Thief‘s technical categorization of Young Adult, I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a book full of beauty and struggle. I will warn you: I read the end of the book through a blur of tears, but it was definitely worth it.

Listen to Markus Zusak talking about the book here:

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One City, One Book Spring 2011: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Hey fellow Chicagoans! Listen up, yous guys.

You may or may not know of the Chicago Public Library’s One City, One Book initiative, which  “seeks to cultivate a culture of reading in our city by reinforcing the importance and fun of reading and highlighting the benefits of reading together as a community,” but the program is one pick short of celebrating 10 years in action.

This spring, the One City, One Book pick is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. In addition to recommending a book each spring and fall, the CPL provides resources, such as author bios, discussion groups, discussion questions (if you want to lead your own group), further reading suggestions and more on its website. There are also planned events related to the book, including a talk with Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger (who wrote one of my favorite Chicago-centric novels, Time Traveler’s Wife) .

Gaiman himself is the creative force that brought us the fabulously creepy novel-turned-graphic-novel-turned movie Coraline and other works including American GodsAnansi Boys and  Good Omens.

Read about how Chicago played a part in inspiring Gaiman to write Neverwhere here, pick up a copy (you can reserve a Chicago Public Library branch copy here), and get out there and attend some events!

 


What They’re Reading

There’s a woman over there, on the other side of the El car with a book in her hands. What’s she reading? I know you’re dying to know. Go ahead… Slide down in your seat for a better look at the cover. Or maybe you want to lean to the side for a little voyeuristic peek at the Nook next to you. Feel a bit like a perv? Well, now you don’t have to. One of the daily newsletters I’m subscribed to, ShelfAwareness, recently distributed a list of top-selling books in Chicago and Milwaukee. Here you have it, a peep-free guide to what everybody else is reading:

Top-Selling Titles in Chicago and Milwaukee

The following were the bestselling books at independent bookstores in and around Chicago and Milwaukee during the week ending Sunday, February 20:

Hardcover Fiction

1. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
2. Swamplandia by Karen Russell
3. Room by Emma Donoghue
4. While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut
5. Fadeaway Girl by Martha Grimes

Hardcover Nonfiction

1. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
2. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
3. Hey Buddy by Gary W. Moore
4. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
5. A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Paperback Fiction

1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
4. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
5. True Grit by Charles Portis

Paperback Nonfiction

1. Just Kids by Patti Smith
2. Nurtureshock by Po Bronson
3. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
4. Awkward Family Photos by Mike Bender
5. Country Driving by Peter Hessler

Children’s

1. Silverlicious by Victoria Kann
2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
3. Papertoy Monsters by Bri Castleforte
4. When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic
5. Little White Rabbit by Kevin Henkes

Reporting bookstores: Anderson’s, Naperville and Downers Grove; Read Between the Lynes, Woodstock; the Book Table, Oak Park; the Book Cellar, Lincoln Square; Lake Forest Books, Lake Forest; the Bookstall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka; Women and Children First, Chicago; Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee; and Next Chapter Bookshop, Meqoun, Wis.

[Many thanks to the reporting booksellers and Carl Lennertz!]

 


Literary Monsters: Shakespeare Undead vs. Jane and the Damned

I was in the library the other day, picking something up for my mom and trying to keep my itchy fingers from grabbing yet another book to read (after all, I’m still trying to finish Jane Eyre and Red Riding Hood before their March 11 movie release date! Not to mention the 20 other books on my goodreads.com to-read shelf…), but I couldn’t help myself when I came across Shakespeare Undead, by Lori Handeland (St. Martin’s Griffin) and then Jane and the Damned, by Janet Mullany (Avon, HarperCollins). Is this a new genre emerging? Literature legends meet the undead? I had to check them out. Sorry Jane Eyre.

Shakespeare Undead

photo via amazon.com

The story opens in London, 1592, with an unknown narrator stalking and killing a zombie in the dark streets, then mistakenly slicing the neck of a man who’d startled the narrator by coming to his/her aid. The playful, humorous writing style hooked me from the beginning. (“I call them the tibonage. You’d call them zombies. Yes, they exist. All over the damn place.”) I want to be fair in this review because there were some great things about the book. Handeland has a great voice to her writing, which she carries consistently throughout the story. It’s a fast-paced book and it was fun to read. But it did have some “oh come on… really?” moments that I’m going to do my best to explain below.

At some points in the book, I felt like I was reading a story in which zombies and vampires and ghosts had invaded the movie Shakespeare in Love, and it bothered me because I wanted Handeland’s fun story and vivid characters to stand on their own. The love of Shakespeare’s post-life (oh btw, Shakespeare is a vampire who sees dead people) turns out to be a married woman, bound to a husband she doesn’t love who has a plantation in Virginia. She disguises herself as a boy to moonlight as a zombie hunter and that’s how she first meets Shakespeare (who I couldn’t help but picture as Joseph Fiennes, yum). And even the Queen herself (featured in a climactic scene at the end) seems to have stepped straight from the silver screen.

Joseph Fiennes made an appearance in my mind's eye for this Shakespearean mash-up. (photo via http://www.imdb.com)

Another thing that interrupted the fun, fast-paced action takes a little explaining. Shakespeare, as an immortal vampire, is supposed to have written many great works from various personas over the course of history. The narrative, then, is interrupted here and there by moments of distraction, in the form of ideas for future works. Alluding to other future works of this undead person (for example, “Will’s brain tingled. I see dead people. The voice of a child. Where had that come from? The usual place, Will’s overactive imagination. But what if there were a child who saw dead people, as Will had?…”) is kind of fun at some points, but at other times trips the flow of the narrative and is more distracting and corny than cute.

Bottom line: Shakespeare Undead was a fun, witty story about love and zombies that reminded me a lot of a movie I like. It had its corny moments that took away from the story, but I still somehow managed to make it through the book in record time.

Jane and the Damned

photo via tlcbooktours.com

What I thought would be the sillier of the two books was actually the one I enjoyed more. When reading Jane and the Damned, I felt much more in-tune with the main character’s setting than I had with Shakespeare Undead, and it had a much stronger plotline.

The story opens with the rejection of a manuscript and our as-yet-unpublished heroine, Jane Austen, attending a country dance with her sister and a friend. To the horror and delight of the girls, the dance is attended by some of London’s illustrious Damned. (“…in London the Damned of the ton gambled and whored and scandalized decent folk…”) Jane catches the eye of one of the svelte creatures and her witty banter leaves him wanting more. So much more that he drains her and, feeling slightly guilty, gives her the gift of rebirth… as a vampire.

So the story begins. Jane, horrified to discover what she has become, confides in her father, who takes the whole family to Bath, as the waters of Bath are said to be the only thing that can cure Jane’s new affliction. While she is there, she meets a vampire who, intent on changing her mind about her condition, does his best to talk her out of it. He almost fails when French forces attack the small city.

Events unfold and Jane is drawn deeper into the world of the vampires as they try to drive the French from the city. Underneath that plot arc is Jane’s desire for Luke, the vampire who takes her under his wing, versus her ache to go back to her family and her life of writing, which she just can’t seem to get interested in as a fanged fiend.

I won’t tell you how it ends (I suggest you read it for yourself to find out), but I will tell you this much, I was glad to find that this was only the first book of a series because business, my friends, was not finished.

While Jane and the Damned was not as lighthearted as I thought it would be, it was also a fun read. The only thing I found frustrating was one particularly confusing battle scene. It felt as if parts were left out and jarred me out of the otherwise well-written storyline.

Bottom line: Jane and the Damned had all the things I like: believable historical context, likable characters, a plotline that kept my attention and was written in a style that allowed me to feel sympathetic of the characters when it was appropriate. I am looking forward to the next one!


The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Uncommon Reader’s book-flap commentary includes praise after praise of author Alan Bennett: his style, his humor, his popularity, even his, well, Englishness. What is sadly missing, in my humble opinion, is praise of the story itself. The story, which centers around the Queen’s journey of discovery through the world of books, is to me more than just a vehicle for Bennett’s wit. As the Queen sinks deeper and deeper into the world of literature, she accordingly begins to see the world differently and to question role within it.

This book tugged some strings for me personally (which I’ll explain below), but if it hadn’t, the question is, would the much-praised Alan Bennett have appealed to me, the average, book-reading, 20-something American? I enjoyed the dry humor and the dead-pan delivery, but I stress dry. I enjoyed it quite a bit, because the dry, deadpan approach is something I appreciate, but for those who crave a more involved, action-packed plot line, this is not the book for you. I also found it frustrating when my enjoyment of the story was snagged by an British acronym I didn’t understand, and I have to say, it took me longer than I appreciated to figure out that “dolly” means attractive or appealing or something like it.

Bennett’s story is about a Queen, but following her journey made me realize my own. As I read, I couldn’t help but reflect on the role of reading in my life. I’ve been surrounded by readers since I was a baby. My parents are both readers. Some of my fondest childhood memories include trips to the children’s section of the local public library, with its puppets, games and, of course, books. The smell of a library or a bookstore is a smell that says to me I’m home. In other words, I can’t imagine a life without books. So to follow the Queen’s growth from book-tolerator to book-devourer, and to see the effect it had on her job, on the opinion of those around her who serve her, made me question, maybe for the first time, how reading has changed me in similar aspects. (Not, mind you, that I have anybody who serves ME!) It brought me into an experience I have always taken for granted.

So bottom line: Would I recommend this to my friends? If you are in for a humorous, dry, witty little 120-page story (of fiction) about a public figure you will never meet, which might just get you thinking about things you never thought about before, then yes. Give it a shot.

PS – There’s even a surprise at the end.


Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sarah’s Key was an enjoyable, albeit slightly depressing read.

The story begins in Paris, July 1942, from the perspective of a little girl. The girl, whose name isn’t actually acknowledged until much later in the book (I’m not sure I understand why) and her family are being rounded up by the French police with other Jewish families for eventual deportation to Auschwitz.

Fast forward sixty years and we meet the main narrator of the book, Julia Jarmond, an American ex-pat living in Paris with her French husband and daughter. Julia is a journalist covering the 60th anniversary of the roundup and, as the back of the book says, “stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah…”

The two stories are well-woven into easy, digestible sections, each story doing its job to pull you further in to the separate story lines until they collide in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.

The story, besides being some well-written historical fiction, draws in a lot of themes, some I could identify with better than others. For example, Julia deals with a lot of things that, being single and childless, aren’t things I worry about. An unstable marriage, pregnancy problems and uneasy relations with the in-laws are issues that my married friends and family members can probably better sympathize with and I’m guessing feel closer to the narrator because of it.

In a nutshell: I enjoyed reading the book. It was informative about events in the past that I was unfamiliar with, and I liked that it was written by a French author and much of the story centered around contemporary France’s attitude about the events of the past. There were a lot of unhappy events in the story, so while it was a good story and interesting to read, it was a bit of a downer. The end, which I won’t give away, does end on a hopeful note though.

And: This book (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) includes a brief interview with the author about the book, recommended further reading titles and a list of discussion questions. The book raises a lot of good discussion points and I would definitely recommend it for a book club/reading group.


Rotters, by Daniel Kraus (2011)

RottersRotters by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really have to give some hard thought to my review of this book… I have very mixed feelings about it.

Take one part touching story about a boy (Joey) losing his mother and going to live with the father he never knew existed. Add one part teenage angst about starting over in a new school and from day one, being the target of the violent meat-head school bully and his cronies. Add the embarrassment of having the town pariah as his father and showing up at school smelling like garbage every day. Mix in a crush on meat-head’s girlfriend, for added measure, and a vindictive teacher bent on torturing Joey all year long.

Now, sprinkle into your promising mix the following:

Joey’s suspicion of his father’s life of thievery, which takes a turn for the macabre when he follows the old man one night. Watching his father clip a finger off of a disembodied hand to pocket the gold ring, Joey discovers just what kind of thievery his father is best at.

Joey’s first night out under his philosophical, professor-like father’s wing. You get to go along for the graphic, darkly educational ride as Joey takes part in his first dig and sees his first “Rotter.”

The eventual revenge Joey takes on the three high school forces that ruin any chance for normalcy between the hours of 8-3. I’m at a loss for words trying to sum up the method of revenge Joey takes. Creative, for sure, but also dark, gruesome, disgusting and twisted. So very twisted. My feelings of “they got what was coming to them” were tainted by my slight revulsion of the method.

A dark, sad cast of other Diggers peppering the story, including one whose drug-fueled wasting illness, descent into insanity and sickening violation of Joey’s own mother’s buried body isn’t enough to keep Joey away. The maniacal teachings and philosophies of his father’s old enemy were grotesquely fascinating, like a terrible car accident that people stop traffic to gawk at.

A vile project by one whose right mind left him long ago, threatening to bring an end to a long, proud line of Diggers. Kraus occasionally pays homage to the history of grave-robbing by mentioning Scotland’s resurrection men, who dug up fresh bodies for medical study, and Leonardo da Vinci, who apparently used the bodies to study human form.

For the pièce de résistance, top with the subtle instances of alcoholism, bullying, bodily mutilation (of the live variety), necrophilia and the difficult journey of teenage self-realization.

Rotters was unlike any book I’d ever read. And I’ve read some dark ones. I feel like the “normal” elements of the story would appeal to any high schooler who’s ever been bullied at school or crushed on someone socially out of reach (myself included). It’s the parts that come in between, the dark, creepy parts that make you think twice about turning out the lights, that take a special kind of reader to enjoy. I’m not sure which line Kraus crossed to leave me feeling so uneasy after the book was finished (cuz he crossed a lot of lines with this one), but even now, while I’m writing what I feel is a kind of negative review, I want to pick up the book and read it over again.

Kraus, for all his gruesome genius, is a very gifted writer. I couldn’t help but laugh at some of his cleverly worded passages (there is, in fact, humor in this book as well!). His Diggers, in spite of all their oddness, dirt and stink, are somehow much more likable than anyone “normal” within the high school’s doors. The relationship between Joey and his father grows and develops in a very real way, in spite of the dark cacophony surrounding it, and though it isn’t all happy, the book has a pretty satisfying conclusion.

I would recommend this book to those with a very open mind and a very strong stomach. If you like things that are dark, creepy, twisted, suspenseful and more than a little shocking, you will probably enjoy the adventure of reading this book. If you are squeamish about anything I’ve mentioned above, take a pass because nothing I’ve written does justice to Kraus’ work.

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