Tag Archives: Made Me Think About Stuff

Room, by Emma Donoghue

via tower.com

Room, by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Co., 2010), was like nothing I’ve ever read before. Like The Book Thief, Room is narrated in an unusual way. The story is told through the eyes of 5-year-old Jack, a little boy who’s spent his whole life in an 11’x11′ room with his Ma. Hearing the story of a young woman’s kidnapping and confinement through the filter of a 5-year-old gives the story a new depth and constantly throws you into a new, unusual perspective.

If you’ve spent much time talking to 5 year olds, you’ll know that they haven’t quite mastered the nuances of our tricky English language. Those sneaky pronouns, irregular past tense verbs and complicated sentence structures get in the way when Jack tells the story, but, like reading in a foreign language, once you get used to the patterns and “Jack-speak”, the book’s narrative flows much more smoothly, allowing  you to get swept into the story.

Jack and Ma (we never do learn her “other two names”, as Jack deems them unnecessary because Ma already has a name: Ma) have a daily routine in Room. (Jack personifies a lot of inanimate objects, and considers them his friends) Jack’s whole world is in Room, his friends are the five picture books he can read by himself, Bed, Duvet, Wardrobe, Rug, Plant, Egg-snake under the bed, and his TV friend Dora. When Jack begins to outgrow the confines of Room, Ma breaks down, tells him the story of her kidnapping and “unlies” the truth of Outside. They plan a scary, brave (“scrave”) escape and I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler if I tell you that they are successful because…

The second half of the book focuses on Ma and Jack adjusting to life in Outside. We meet Jack’s grandparents and, through Jack’s very real child’s perspective, get a glimpse of how the fringe characters had adjusted to Ma’s disappearance.

While the events in this story are horrifying to think about: kidnapping, repeated rape, a child growing up in a tiny, 11’x11′ space, they are told with a contrasting attitude of normalcy and a perspective that will keep you turning pages. Jack’s voice and point of view keep the story light and straightforward. Any “oh, how awful it must’ve been” voices are all on the periphery, mostly from the outside world after the big escape.

What really stood out to me in this story is the bond between Jack and Ma, the courage and creativity she used to create as normal of a life as was possible for her little boy in their confined space, and the fierce protectiveness Jack and Ma feel toward each other. Rather than being a depressing Debbie Downer, Room was full of hope and life.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a unique, perspective-changing, thought-provoking book, I definitely recommend Room. If you’re still not sure about it, check out this great review by The Guardian’s Nicola Barr. Or this interview with author Emma Donoghue: 

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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:


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.