Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Book #02

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Here is a small fact - you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.
Some important information - this novel is narrated by Death.
It's a small story, about:
a girl
an accordionist
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.
Another thing you should know - Death will visit the book thief three times.

For me, this is the book. The one you look for to take your breath away, the one you've been searching years for, just to name it your favourite. This the one I tell everyone all about, the one I pass on to people and urge them to read, the one I'm never given back, because how could they let go of this story? Most importantly, this is the book I respond with when asked the most awkward question non-readers ask when confronted with a voracious reader: "So what is your favourite book?" I'll tell you why:

There are a million and one books written about the holocaust. Some say we don't need any more. Some say we need as many as possible, so we never forget. Some say holocaust literature begins and ends with Anne Frank's diary. Maybe all of these people are right in their own way. But I'd go as far to say nothing as wonderful as this novel will ever be written again. 

Zusak's prose is poetic. The words glide through your mind like honey; his imagery is absolutely lyrical, and his haunting descriptions of wartime Germany are unforgettable. Zusak makes you understand things that you could never understand, and he uses only the power of his words:
"Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew." 
The words feel as though as they've been painted on to the pages to show us a picture of something important, something we will never encounter again. Zusak stresses the power of words for Hitler, and how the power of words helped Liesel. It's very fitting that the power of words makes this novel as flawless as it is. 

My favourite part of the novel is Zusak's characters. They are beautiful. They are perfectly crafted; gorgeously kind to one another, but full of flaws. Mistakes are made in abundance, relationships are broken, whilst others are rebuilt. Everyone has a back story, a reason for their attitudes and behaviours. All are glorious, all feel more than human than people you encounter daily, and all are loved. You'll even fall in love with Frau Holzapfel, who spits on Liesel's door each time she passes. Zusak's character development is eventually the thing that breaks you in the end.

Using Death as a narrator is a wonderful technique. This omniscient inhuman voice tells us the story of the book thief, and as he has no time for mysteries, foreshadows events in her life. Rather than having a spoiler effect, this declaration of future events heightens our anticipation of things to come, and our dread of the worst case scenario. And isn't that just like a war? Knowing you are destined to lose either someone you love, or yourself? That it's only a matter of time? Zusak builds the worst kind of apprehension in us as he alludes to the fact that some of the wonderful people he's given to you may not still be standing in a few pages.

Despite the novel's theme, and our formidable narrator, Zusak never lets things become too morbid. A beautiful vein of humour runs through the pages, and we see how the small things in life can brighten a day. The sheer brilliancy of the character's hearts, and the ways they behave towards each other, is inspiring, and at times the poverty-stricken Himmler Street seems a wonderful place to live.

My own graceless power of words could never completely describe both the joy and sorrow this book brings me. I can only urge you read it, and come away with your heart broken into tiny pieces.

I have hated the words and

I have loved them, and I
hope I have made them right.

You can read my 2010 review of The Book Thief here.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Book #01

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor's warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.

Jane Austen's novels never sound interesting summarised on paper. Sense and Sensibility focusses on two sisters - one who is emotionally reserved, and one who is emotionally volatile -  and how they cope with relationships, social behaviours and conventions, in their different ways. It sounds incredibly dull and lifeless, I agree, but once you pick the novel up, Austen's plot, characterisation, and sheer skill take over.

Austen's characters are completely well-rounded, some with amazingly detailed and deep back stories. There is huge variation to their likeability, and each of them have a different balance of good and bad qualities. This allows the reader themselves to decide who is to be forgiven, and also gives the characters a good degree of realism. The characters and their behaviours are used by Austen to ask the question in book's title - is it better to conceal your true emotions and behave in the way society dictates, or should we be free with our emotions, let them run wild, and let others see us as we are? Austen explores this through Elinor and Marianne, but both sense and sensibility is apparent in her other characters, and we are taken on a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the entire novel.

The correctness of Austen's time can be unfathomable in parts. The way her women conduct themselves so properly, and the pains they take to express their emotions in an acceptable and correct way absolutely astounds me. Solving a dispute these days involves women dragging each other outside the pub by the hair, but there's something far colder and hurtful that comes from a cutting comment in refined company. It's completely fascinating how these characters behave, and Austen is able to show us their emotions without displaying them outwardly for the other characters to see.

The book also focuses largely on income, and its affect on the emotions of the characters. The power money has over the characters is huge - especially surrounding marriage. Austen's cutting commentary around this is incredible, and the number of hearts which were broken simply due to financial constraints was unbelievable.

Lastly, the romance. Austen is old school chick-lit, and although I generally stay away from new school chick-lit, I was caught up in the romance here. It's just so true. We're given flawed couples, unlikely connections, romance which fades away, and characters behaving ridiculously in the name of love. The people who you believe are meant to be together don't end up together. Prince Charming has more than one fatal flaw, but we love him anyway. Real life doesn't get more real.

I love Jane Austen. I believe she's a literary genius, and a badass of her time. I love that her books are laden with sly little sarcasms surrounding societal and financial expectations. I particularly love the fact that this book was written when she was only nineteen. If that doesn't make you feel like you've done absolutely nothing with your life, then I'm not sure what will. I'd encourage anyone to pick up Austen - it looks boring in summary, but it's wonderful in form. And men - you will enjoy this too, it's not just for girls. You will see yourself in the heroes. Well, maybe.