Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Book Thief

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

Published in 2005, Australian writer Marcus Zusak's fifth novel quickly rose on the NY Times Best Seller List and would go on to win numerous awards.  Zusak says that the inspiration for the story's setting of Nazi Germany came from the stories his parents told of growing up in Germany and Austria during that period.  In this novel, we see the complications and dangers of war played out in the lives of young people and the power that words have, both for good and for evil.

The Plot:

The story is narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany, a time and place that is keeping him very busy.  He first encounters Liesel Meminger ("The Book Thief") when her little brother dies on their way to a new foster family.  Liesel arrives alone at the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann.  Though Rosa is hot-tempered and abrasive towards Liesel, Hans immediately takes to her and begins teaching her to read.  Liesel settles into life on Himmel St. and becomes friends with a neighbor boy named Rudy Steiner.  At a Nazi book-burning ceremony, Liesel (who is now obsessed with reading) secretly takes a book that survived the fire and brings it home.  Her book stealing days really begin there.

Life changes dramatically when Max Vandenburg, a Jew, arrives at their house and Hans and Rosa hide him in the basement.  He and Liesel soon bond over their love of books and their shared anxieties.  But as the war rages on, life on Himmel St. becomes more and more dangerous.  Bombings, rationing, and the ever present threat of the Nazis discovering Max.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This book has garnered lots of praise and buzz ever since it came out.  It certainly seems to have affected many people and it has earned rave reviews from many readers.  With the recently released film version, I figured it was time to give this one a try.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its setting on the German side of World War II.  While Zusak is quick to emphasize the real horror and tragedy that the Jewish people went through, he also recognizes that they are not the only victims.  We tend to look back on that period and lump all Germans under the "Nazi" label.  What we often don't realize is that many Germans were victims as well.  They were young people who had no say in what happened to their nation and what they were instructed believe.  They were men and women who were forced to accept (at least on the surface) things they did not really believe in order to protect their families.  They were people who didn't ask for war, and yet lost their lives in bombings.  By the end of the novel, we feel the pain of loss of many characters and realize that war makes victims of us all.

But this isn't just a novel about war, it is also about words.  As readers, we know that words are powerful and can change the world.  What we perhaps fail to realize is that it is the reader/speaker that determines how that power is used.  Max often ponders how Hitler is able to use the power of words to drill horrible beliefs into the German people, and yet ironically his path to safety is hidden in the pages of Mein Kampf.  To me, this is why book burning and book censorship is so crazy.  The mere existence of words does not threaten people, but rather what we choose to do with them.  Wise words have often been twisted by people to use for their own evil purposes.  And sometimes, words meant to bring pain have been used to bring about good.  It is us who determine what their ultimate fate will be.  Perhaps the most powerful moment in the book regarding this is when Liesel is reading the book she saved from the fire to her neighbors in the bomb shelter.  A book that the Nazis tried to burn for fear that it would make their citizens weak actually serves to bring them comfort and make them strong even as their world is crumbling around them.

Now, as far as The Book Thief itself, I didn't particuarly have strong feelings about it one way or another.   I certainly didn't hate it and found many interesting aspects to the story, but it was by no means a "life-changing" one.  I kind of feel like I might have connected more if Liesel herself had been the narrator.  The use of Death as a narrator, though interesting, made for a lack of intimacy and in some ways sympathy that are necessary to really pull a story like this off.  I'm glad I read it, but it isn't one that I see myself reading over and over again in the coming years.

Though it is by no means a perfect book, I still don't mind recommending it.  It has some good messages, and it has certainly struck a chord with many readers.  If it sounds like something that would interest you, go for it.  It is worth reading at least once.

The Movie:

The book was recently adapted into a major motion picture starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Sophie Nelisse.  It has received mixed reviews, but I have not yet seen it and so cannot comment.  Please let us know your impression of it if you have seen it.                        

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Page To Screen: The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

Last December saw the arrival of the highly anticipated second installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit film.  While I enjoyed the first film overall, I wasn't completely enamored with it.  Like many people, I found the pace to be somewhat slow and some of the characters lacking in development.  Many of those issues, however, are resolved here and I found myself enjoying this installment almost as much as The Lord of the Rings.  Here are some of my thoughts on it:

- This film has a pace that never lets up from beginning to end.  Jackson doesn't waste time re-hashing any of the back story from the first film.  We pick up right where we left off and roll seamlessly from one adventure to another.  You almost can't predict where it will end since the pace never lets up. 

-We get to witness so many great moments from the book in this film.  Whether you are most excited about the Elves of Mirkwood, Beorn, Bard the Bowman, Smaug, or (like me) dwarves in barrels, you'll find it here.  We also gain a little more insight to most of the dwarves and they each begin to be their own unique character rather than just a group with one stand out (Thorin).

-I didn't see this film in IMAX or 3D, but the visuals were still stunning.  Those spiders in Mirkwood were crazy scary and realistic.  I almost came out of my skin watching those scenes!  And Smaug was magnificently done with eyes that, as my sister put it, "look through your very soul".  For all of that, there were times that I kind of wish they had used a little less CGI and visual tricks.  Legolas' eyes were very distracting, and most of the Orcs seemed so smooth and almost fake compared to the ones from LOTR.

-The acting is, once again, superb.  Martin Freeman continues his impressive portrayal of Bilbo and I am more impressed with him every time I see him.  And may I just say...BENEDICT...CUMBERBATCH!!!  We don't even actually SEE him and he still commands the screen.  His portrayal of Smaug was spot on...evil, intelligent, bored, self-absorbed, insecure, jealous, and vengeful.  Every second with Smaug on screen was pure genius.

- I'm still not sure how I feel about Tauriel.  This character was created by Peter Jackson for, I believe, three reasons.  One was to make sure there was a female character somewhere in the film.  The second was to have someone for all of the Arwen fans to root for.  And the other was to give Legolas a bit of back story.  In the end, I think I had less of a problem with her more of a problem with Legolas in this film.  He seriously has nothing to do except to stand around shooting Orcs.  He was kind of a waste of space.

- I still think the Pale Orc story line is unnecessary, though certainly less of a distraction here than in An Unexpected Journey.

Overall, this was a step up from AUJ and it certainly deserves all of the praise that it has received.  It is a must see for all Middle Earth fans.  If you are on the fence after the first film, definitely see this.  You will be glad you did and, like the rest of us, eagerly await the story's conclusion.

Friday, February 14, 2014

They Still Say "I Love You"...

Happy Valentines Day, everyone!  As in years past, it is time for another round of my favorite literary couples.  Here are a few fictional couples who continue to make me laugh, cry, and swoon with their stories:

Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars

Hazel's and Augustus' lives intersect under the worst of circumstances.  Hazel is dying and it is obvious that their time will be brief.  At first, Hazel keeps Augustus at a distance, but he insists that loving each other will be worth it no matter how little time they have.  Their story will make you laugh and cry, but more than anything it will encourage you to open yourself up to love and life, no matter what pain you might be facing.

"I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina

Not all literary couples have happy endings and Anna and Count Vronsky's story is a cautionary tale if nothing else.  They are people completely consumed by passion.  And while their lives seem complete while this passion burns bright, things begin to fall apart when the sparks die down and real life stares them in the face.  A relationship founded completely on emotional passion often becomes consumed by it's own flames.

“They've got no idea what happiness is, they don't know that without this love there is no happiness or unhappiness for us--there is no life.”

Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars in Sense & Sensibility

Elinor and Edwards's relationship is rather maddening since what makes them such great people are the very things that threaten to keep them apart.  Edward is an honorable man who fulfills his promises and his duties.  This of course means that he will not break his engagement to Lucy Steele even though he loves Elinor.  And Elinor is a woman who can hold herself together under very trying circumstances, but this control deceives Edward into thinking she does not care for him.  It's kind of funny that their happiness is only brought about by the weak characters of other people.

“I come here with no expectations, only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is and always will be yours.” 

Kitty and Walter Fane in The Painted Veil

Though many love stories end with a wedding, this one begins with it.  Kitty Fane is a self-centered woman and is incapable of recognizing or appreciating the deep love that her husband has for her.  When she breaks his trust (and his heart) their life together becomes one long and torturous road of revenge and heartache.  But their isolated life in a small Chinese village forces them to see not only their own failings but also the good in each other.  The story ends, if not with true reconciliation, at least with personal growth for Kitty.

“How can I be reasonable? To me our love was everything and you were my whole life. It is not very pleasant to realize that to you it was only an episode.”

Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man

It isn't often that you find a married couple in literature who are just plain fun.  Nick and Nora Charles are just that.  They each have a razor sharp wit that they love to use on each other.  They are game for any adventure and will face any danger together.  They trust each other implicitly.  They can hold more liquor than seems humanly possible.  All in all they are smart, fun, and glittering and embody the spirit of the Roaring 20s. 

She grinned at me.  "You got types?"
"Only you, darling - lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."

Picture credits:
Shailene Woodley & Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars
Keira Knightley & Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Anna Karenina
Hattie Morahan & Dan Stevens in Sense & Sensibility
Naomi Watts & Edward Norton in The Painted Veil
Myrna Loy & William Powell in The Thin Man

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Our Mutual Friend

“I have made up my mind that I must have money, Pa. I feel that I can't beg it, borrow it, or steal it; and so I have resolved that I must marry it.” 

Written in 1864-65, Our Mutual Friend would be Charles Dickens' last completed novel.  It was in danger of being incomplete as the manuscript was almost lost in the traumatic Staplehurst rail crash.  Dickens was lucky to escape not only with his life, but also with the manuscript.  Though not considered by critics to be one of Dickens' greatest successes, it remains a favorite with readers.  Once again, Dickens challenges the norms of Victorian society and their obsession with money and material possessions.

The Plot:
After building a massive fortune, a mean and cold-hearted miser dies.  In his will, he leaves his fortune to his son, John Harmon, from whom he has been estranged for many years.  John only gets the fortune if he marries a young woman whom he has never met named Bella Wilfer.  But before he can claim his inheritance, he is reported as drowned in the River Thames.  The fortune then falls into the hands of Old Mr. Harmon's faithful servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin.

As the chaos of the will, John Harmon's death, and Mr. and Mrs. Boffin's new found wealth begin to swirl around London, many people find themselves caught up in it.  There is spoiled, but pretty Bella Wilfer who has had her hopes of wealth dashed.  There is patient and kind Lizzie Hexham whose father's involvement in the Harmon case places him under a cloud of suspicion.  There is Eugene Wrayburn who finds himself drawn to Lizzie in a way he has never felt before.  There is the scoundrel Silas Wegg who determines to profit by Mr. Boffin's innocence in money matters.  And there is John Rokesmith who takes the position of Mr. Boffin's secretary and loses his heart to Bella.   As the story progresses, long hidden secrets come to light, fortunes rise and fall, and people are revealed be different from what they seem.      

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the next novel in my quest to read all of Dickens' works.  I greatly enjoy his novels and have heard many good things about this one from other readers.  Overall, though I didn't like it as much as some of his other works (Bleak House, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield), I still thought it was a solid read.

One of the most notable aspects of this novel is the symbolism and importance that Dickens gives to water.  Like the courts in Bleak House, or Society in Little Dorrit, the River Thames becomes the silent character in this story, guiding the fates of many people.  Dickens uses it to symbolize rebirth and renewal time and time again.  Many characters face near drowning only to come out of it as new people.  John Harmon leaves behind the life his unloving father dictated for him for a life on his own terms and of his own making.  Eugene Wrayburn leaves behind an indolent (and somewhat selfish) way of life and instead commits himself to a loving and generous wife in the form of Lizzie Hexham.  What I find to be interesting is that Rogue Riderhood, one of the stories' villains, also experiences a near drowning experience.  But unlike the other characters, he remains unchanged after the ordeal.  Not every "baptism" leads to salvation.

As in his other novels, Dickens takes aim at the faults in Victorian society.  In this one, it is mostly the corrupting power of money (and the desire for it).  Though we later find that Bella Wilfer is actually a very sweet girl, her desperate need for money is a dark mark on her character for much of the novel.  We see the wealth often covers some very greedy and false characters as in the Veneerings (how aptly named), the Podsnaps, and the Lammles.  It is the pursuit of wealth that governs the actions of the treacherous Rogue Riderhood and the sneaky Silas Wegg.  Even sweet Mr. Boffin appears to allow his newfound wealth to change him into a miserly and miserable man.  Dickens shows us that the pursuit and gain of material possessions does not make up for the lack of a kind and generous spirit.

While the sprawling plot is decent enough, I find that what this particular book lacks in comparison with Dickens' other works are truly endearing characters.  Though I have become used to underwhelming main characters, there are usually plenty of eccentric side characters to make up for this.  I just didn't feel that with this novel.  I didn't find any characters that I really loved, or hated, or feared.  There was just a bit of blandness that seemed to hover over each one.  I didn't feel like any of them would stick with me for a long time.

While I don't consider it one of my favorite works, it was still worth reading.  Dickens' writing and plot are as spectacular as ever, and the characters are engaging, if just short of endearing.  It is a solid example of his work and one that you should read...after you've read some of his best ones.

The Movie:

There have been three TV serials made from this story.  The first was in 1958 and stars Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, and David McCallum.  Another was done in 1976 and stars Jane Seymour, John McEnery, and Nicholas Jones. 

The last one was done in 1998 and stars Keeley Hawes, Steven Mackintosh, Timothy Spall, and David Morrissey.  I have seen this one and found it to be a solid adaptation.  The plot was handled well, and the cast was excellent.  A worthy companion to the novel. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Bully Reader

"I am a part of everything that I have read." -Theodore Roosevelt

America has had some amazing men as Presidents, many of whom were great readers.  Thomas Jefferson owned an enormous book collection and kept meticulous lists of books he owned and sold.  John F. Kennedy was said to have been reading something almost all of the time.  And our current president has been noted for his voracious reading as well.  But perhaps no other president has had such strong reading habits, or had so much to say on the subject of reading, as our 26th President Theodore Roosevelt.

When it comes to the image of a "manly man", there is perhaps no better specimen than Teddy Roosevelt.  After overcoming a sickly childhood which often kept him at home, he would go on to become well known as a strong, energetic man who was always involved in something exciting.  He spent some years as a cowboy in North Dakota.  He served as the NYC Police Commissioner and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  And in the Spanish American War, he created the famous "Rough Riders" regiment and led the immortal charge of San Juan Hill.  

But beyond all of this, he was also man of books.  He was a prolific writer in his own right, having written 18 books in his lifetime on various subjects of history, wildlife, and ranching.  His love of nature and the outdoors led him to become embroiled in the "Nature Fakers" literary controversy.  He was also famous for the number of books he read in his life.  He would read several books a day, in various languages.  Even in his younger years as a cowboy, he famously kept himself awake for forty hours straight to guard a group of thieves by reading the works of Leo Tolstoy.  His Autobiography is filled with many remarks on books and reading:

  “[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

“Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels.”

“Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

Like everything else in his life, Roosevelt took reading to the extreme.  And while his specific reading habits are not attainable for the majority of us, they can offer us much inspiration.  To me, it so wonderful to look back into history and encounter this great person who was just as captivated by books as I am, who shared the same thoughts on reading, and who recognized the importance of reading in the peoples' lives.  It is like finding a kindred spirit from the past.  What do you think of Theodore Roosevelt's reading habits?  Could you sustain them?  Who is a famous reader from history that you admire?