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[690] The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

1thief

” As Liesel would discover, a good thief requires many things.
Stealth. Nerve. Speed.
More important than any of those things, however, was one final requirement. Luck. (Part Two, 117)

The Book Thief is a book about Nazi Germany narrated by Death itself. It’s about death but not Death, although the story is is interwoven with Death’s periodic soliloquies. Death is amiable and affecting, feeling sympathy for the victims. The novel is principally about Liesel Meminger, whose little brother dies just before her mother leaves her with foster parents in a dismal town of Molching. Liesel is the “book thief” who debut her career at the burial ground of her brother, where she snatched a copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Books become her way of coping with losses and eventually save her from the war.

I walked around to see her better, and from the moment I witnessed her face again, I could tell that this was who she loved the most. Her expression stroked the man on his face. It followed one of the lines down his cheek . . . He gave bread to a dead man on Munich Street and told the girl to keep reading in the bomb shelter. (Part 10, 538)

Liesel’s new papa is the implausibly saintly Hans Hubermann, who stays up to read with her and appeases her of nightmares. The mama, Rosa, can be abrasive, raucous, and loud, but cares for Liesel. Death eventually shows that “she was a good woman for a crisis.” Zusak portrays war-stricken Munich and Nazi Germany through the eyes of Liesel, who communes with the living and the dead through her readings. While she joins a gang to pilfer food, her only thieving passion is for books. She visits the mayor’s wife who allows her to browse the library. She spends time with her best friend Rudy Steiner who becomes her partner in crime. She cultivates deep bonding with Max Vandenburg, a 24-year-old Jewish boxer who shows up at the family doorstep. Hans, as it happens, owes the boxer’s dead father a favor, so he houses Max in the basement, where he and Liesel read, write, and draw—until Nazi officers come to inspect the basement for possible conversion to an air-raid shelter.

It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of the Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine . . . The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. (Part 9, 491)

This is searing but lovely book; it deplores human misery. It’s brilliant look at the wartime lives of ordinary decent people at the mercy of the mordant turns of fate. The book has whimsical elements, but it is a long, winding tale that requires reader to grapple with it. It’s made up of fairy tales, war transgressions and a girl’s quest. Liesel is well-drawn: she’s a fine heroine, a memorably strong and dauntless girl. To me The Book Thief is most provocative and admirable because it tells the story in which books become treasures.

550 pp. Alfred A. Knoph. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[418] Dandelion Wine – Ray Bradbury

” All things, once seen, they didn’t just die, that couldn’t be. It must be then that somewhere, searching the world, perhaps in the dipping multiboxed honeycombs where light was an amber sap stored by pollen-fired bees, or in the thirty thousand lenses the noon dragonfly’s gemmed skull you might find all the colors and sights of the wind in any one year. Or pour one single drop of this dandelion wine beneath a microscope and perhaps the entire world of July Fourth would firework out in Vesuvius showers. ” (139)

Summer of 1928 is a life-changing one for 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding, who decides to keep a record of things he does for the first time ever—especially the subtlest moments that he is involved in but never notices. As he observes the rituals of town, he is conscious of the fact that he is alive, and he rejoices in all of life around him.

The words are summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stopped. And now that Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world, to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months and perhaps some of the miracle by then forgotten and in need of renewal. (13)

Soon Douglas is confronted with the truth of all life: that death is inevitable and inclusive. “What ever happened to happy endings?” (155) is his response to this cruel fact. He wonders why people have to die, and that love and affection could only be a quality of the mind. Most of the people whom he has come to known over the summer has passed away, and the boy becomes fearful of death. For a 12-year-old, death is certainly not the subject of discussion. It’s not surprising that he alienates from other boys who (obviously) aren’t thinking about death. But for a boy like Douglas who just finds out that he is teeming with life, and living vicariously through summer, grappling with the idea of death is difficult. Death will deprive him of the magic of life he has just found, and therefore he undertakes an escapade to save the wax Tarot Witch from the penny arcade.

So, I don’t know; what I want to do is: help Mme. Tarot. I’ll hide her a few weeks or months while I look up in the black-magic books at the library how to undo spells and get her out of the wax to run around in the world again after all this time. And she’ll be so grateful, she’ll lay out the cards with all those devils and cups and swords and bones on them and tell me what sump holes to walk around and when to stay in bed on certain Thursday afternoons. I’ll live forever, or next thing to it. (200)

A boy’s plan for immortality! Eventually, like the old folks who can feel their clocks clicking away, Douglas, too, must come to terms with life. Dandelion Wine is not only Bradbury’s golden and heavily mythologized reflections of the summers of his boyhood, it’s an allegory about people’s lives and what it means to live. Through Douglas one perceives that life is about living from moment to moment. Life only has meaning as long as death exists. Throughout the novel Bradbury reminds us that however much grief and fear death invokes, it is not necessarily the worst thing that happens to life. What really matters is living the moment and being happy. Beautifully and provocatively written, it is a sonnet to and affirmation of childhood and innocence of such persuasive power that it will be savored for generations to come. The power of this book lies in the discovery of fundamental and universal truths through the senses of children with a nostalgic longing.

239 pp. Bantam pocket book. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[173] The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – John Boyne

pajamas“Ah those people. Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno. But you shouldn’t be worrying about them right now. They’re nothing to do with you. You have nothing whatsoever in common with them…Accept the situation in which you find yourself and everything will be so much easier.” [53]

“What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?” [100]

Bruno’s childish instinct is right: there is absolutely nothing to be happy about the house his family has moved into. Unlike the mansion in Berlin, this house stands all on its own in an empty, desolate place that overlooks low huts and square buildings bound by high fence that tangles in spirals at the top. The nine-year-old quickly dismisses the possibility of a farm in the countryside, and that they are not living in a holiday home. To escape his bossy sister and the gloomy house orbited by soldiers working for his father, to console his loneliness, the boy decides to explore the world on the other side of the fence on his own.

As Bruno watches the hundreds of people in the distance going about their business, it strikes him that all of them, scrawny, fallow, and pale, are wearing the same clothes that Pavel, who waits on the family at dinner table, is wearing: grey striped pajamas. As it turns out, all that he expects of the other side—the promise of children to play with, grown-ups sitting on rocking chairs, vegetables and fruit stalls like those in Berlin—aren’t there. He has never seen sadder people than they, who stare at the ground blankly and plaintively. One day he walks farther down along the fence that his house has petered out, he notices a spot:

“And then, Bruno got even closer, he saw that the thing was neither a dot nor a speck nor a blob nor a figure, but a person. In fact it was a boy.” [105]

So is the fateful meeting of Bruno with Shmuel. The son of Out-With’s (Auschwitz) commandant and a Jewish inmate. They share the same birthday but their lives are worlds apart. As the boys scrape a friendship and continue to meet daily in the camp’s outskirt, where Bruno feeds his friend food he smuggles out of the house, the question of Bruno’s innocence and cluelessness reverberates in my mind.

Bruno’s innocence is juxtaposed with the extreme evil in the subject of the Holocaust (which is not directly addressed although the signs are clear). In fact, the celebration party held for his father’s promotion is strongly evident of such juxtaposition, ensuing the bane of the inmates. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old, who doesn’t have a hint of his father’s job (except that it ensures the betterment of the country), let alone the happenings behind the concentration camps, it’s unfair to accuse his being complacent. Like a kid would normally do, he sees things as they are, who couldn’t understand the terrible things that happen around him. That he doesn’t view these events in a position of a hindsight, along with his incomprehension, makes this novel one of misunderstandings and misconceptions. While he might be as complacent as everybody else was at the time, his moral struggle later that brings on a twist to the end is satirical of those who are within capability to interfere with the atrocities the has recurred in history. [Read/Toss/Skim]