The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a tale of World War II told from a different point of view than any other book I’ve read on the subject…and at the same time, it’s just like the other World War II books I’ve read.

I’ve read the Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, The Snow Goose, and at least several others. I’ve seen many WWII movies, including The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. All of these books and films are told from the point of view of the allies, or that of people fleeing the tyranny and death camps of the Nazis. The Book Thief is the story of a German family within Nazi Germany. That was quite different and novel to me, to see a glimpse into a German town, a German village, a German mindset during this most horrific time. (Writing this, it occurs to me that Schindler’s List was told from a German perspective…I had forgotten that.)

What The Book Thief has in common with the others is that it is a story of bravery, courage, and heroism. It’s the story of Liesel, a young girl who is given into a foster family by her mother, who can no longer be assured of enough food for her children. Liesel is haunted by the death of her young brother, and the lack of having a father. She is illiterate, and yet, when she comes across an unusual book at her brother’s burial, she cannot resist the temptation to pocket the volume.

Liesel comes to live with a couple in a small village, whose children are grown and independent. The father is an accordionist who can no longer scrape together much of a living himself, and a harsh woman prone to name-calling and swearing. The father, Hans, owes a debt to a friend from WWI, who saved his life. He is called upon to repay that debt when the friend’s son comes to hide in their basement. The friend is a Jew, and the son is in hiding.

The narrator of the story is Death, who, contrary to popular belief, does not really enjoy his job. He aches for the souls that he removes from Earth, aches for their families left behind, longs to free them from their pain and suffering. He calls this a small story, and in many ways it is…it is the small story of a small family, doing their best to survive in a horrific time, trying to stay beneath the radar of the Nazi party, trying to feed themselves and the Jew in their basement, who is himself wracked with guilt over the risk that this family is taking in order that he might survive.

Along the way, we meet Liesel’s best friend, the mayor’s wife, neighbors with kind hearts, and neighbors without kind hearts. All of these characters come together to paint a story of hope, of survival, and of the bravery and horrors of war.

Truly one of the most touching, best books I have read in quite awhile. It’s listed as Young Adult, though please don’t be scared away by that listing. It’s a great book for any age.

Atonement

I thought I would publish this book review, which I wrote over a week ago but was waiting until after the weekend to post, and then things changed in my world and I forgot about it. But it’s been sitting there, waiting patiently, and it gets the pity party off of the top of my page. Can’t spend too much time feeling sorry for myself, can I? No. So, here’s a book review from last week.

I’m writing this review a bit differently than I have in the past, in that I’m not quite half-way through the book, and I’ve got a lot of thoughts swimming around in my head that I want to get out and on ‘paper’, so I can just get back to the book without them clouding my brain. They’re not big, important, deep thoughts. Just thoughts.

First, this book makes me want to smoke. It just seems like the kind of book that a person should read in a big chair or something, smoking a cigarette ala’ Out of Africa, sort of to show how serious I am while reading it. Not in a way that is connected in any way whatsoever to smoking in real life.

Next, and most importantly at this point, I’m having a heck of a time getting into this novel. Thus far, the tale is told mainly in the voice of a young girl, 11-year old Briony, who witnesses several incidents one scorching hot day in 1935. She witnesses a scene between her 21-year old sister (Cecilia) and their neighbor (Robbie), who is about the same age, which she completely misunderstands. He sends a note through Briony, apologizing to Cecilia for the scene, which Briony reads and finds repugnant and somewhat threatening. Lastly, she happens upon a violent crime, her 13-year old cousin being raped by a man, in the dark, whom Briony identifies as Robbie. OK, this is bugging me, because it so clearly wasn’t Robbie committing the crime, and there are clues leading in that give that fact away. It bugs me that Briony ignores these clues, as does everyone around her. Her insistence that she knows beyond any doubt that Robbie committed the crime is frustrating.

That’s all for now, I’ll write more when I finish the book.
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OK, I finished the book, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed the second half much more than the first. Of course, the repercussions of Briony’s insistence of Robbie’s guilt are immediate and dire. That he is so quickly shut out of the family, and that obvious clues are ignored speaks to the fact that he is lower class, the son of a servant, whereas the girl, and the actual rapist, are both upper class, and therefore the blame easily goes to the poor man, rather than the rich one.

As early as the week that followed, the glazed surface of conviction was not without its blemishes and hairline cracks. Whenever she was conscious of them, which was not often, she was driven back, with a little swooping sensation in her stomach, to the understanding that what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible. It was not simply her eyes that told her the truth. It was too dark for that. Even Lola’s face at eighteen inches was an empty oval, and this figure was many feet away, and turned from her as it moved back around the clearing. But nor was this figure invisible, and its size and manner of moving were familiar to her. Her eyes confirmed the sum of all she knew adn had recently experienced. The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her eyes. So when she said, over and over again, I saw him, she meant it, and was perfectly honest, as well as passionate. What she meant was rather more complex than what everyone else so eagerly understood, and her moments of unease came when she felt that she could not explain these nuances. She did not even seriously try. There were no opportunities, no time, no permission. Within a couple of days, no, within a matter of hours, a process was moving fast and well beyond her control.

The second segment in the book is told from Robbie’s point of view. A few years have gone by, and he is in France, retreating from the German army, from Dunkirk to the ocean, where they await a squadron to remove them from France. This segment was the most compelling to me. Robbie’s internal world is much less convoluted than Briony’s, his motives much more straightforward. His shame at leaving is palpable, as is his desire to get home in one piece to Cecilia. The nuance of his desire to get home, his confusion over his feelings, and his understanding that war removes the labls of guilty and innocent, are very moving.

Through the material of his coat he felt for the bundle of her letters. I’ll wait for you. Come back. The words were not meaningless, but they didn’t touch him now. It was clear enough – one person waiting for another like an arithmetical sum, and just as empty of emotion. Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat. Everyone in the cellar was waiting, everyone on the beach. She was waiting, yes, but then what? He tried to make her voice say the words, but it was his own he heard, just below the tread of his heart. He could not even form her face.

..what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there weren’t enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts. The witnesses were guilty too. All day we’ve witnessed each other’s crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to die? Down here in the cellar we’ll keep quiet about it.

The third segment of the book is mainly Briony’s point of view again. It is 1940, and she is working as a nurse in a military hospital in London. She has been changed in ways she could not have imagined, both by the war, and by the outfall of her accusation of Robbie in the rape of her cousin. She has grown up a lot, and is faced with the task of seeking Robbie and Cecilia’s forgiveness. She is looking for atonement for her insistance at that earlier time, when she now knows the truth of what happened that day, even more than Cecilia and Robbie do.

I very much liked the book, at least the second half. The writing was beautiful, and painted a picture that was at the same time bleak and lush. Not an easy feat.

The Inheritance of Loss

I finally finished The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. I was so looking forward to reading this book, as I had heard nothing but good things about it. I even asked a woman on BART if she were enjoying, as she was reading it while on the way into the city, and she said that she was engrossed, and couldn’t pull herself away. I started this book almost a month ago, and I’m sad to say that I had a really difficult time getting into it. It’s sad, because the book is beautifully written. It’s the congruent story of a retired judge in Northern India, his granddaughter, his cook, and the cook’s son, who has left to find his fortune in New York. All of this during the Kalimpong uprising in the mid 1980s. From Widipedia, about Kalimpong, which gives a bit of background to the story:

Kalimpong is a hill town nestled in the Shiwalik Hills (or Lower Himalaya) in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Between 1986 and 1988, the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland and Kamtapur based on ethnic lines grew strong. Riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), led by C K Pradhan, and the West Bengal government reached a standoff after a forty-day strike. The town was virtually under a siege, leading the state government to call in the Indian army to maintain law and order. This led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a body that was given semi-autonomous powers to govern the district. Though Kalimpong is now peaceful, the issue of a separate state still lingers. In July 2004, the generally tranquil town was catapulted into national and international headlines after Maninder Pal Singh Kohli, a murderer wanted by Scotland Yard, was traced and found to be residing in Kalimpong.

The Inheritance of Loss shifts between the third world of this town and its surrounding area and the first world of New York, where Biju, the son of the cook, has illegally immigrated to try for a better life. But there he finds mostly humiliation, hard work, and very little pay. The book concentrates on the pain of exile and the arrows still slung and festering from the colonialist era.

He could not talk to his father; there was nothing left between them but emergency sentences, clipped telegram lines shouted out as if in the midst of a war. They were no longer relevant to each other’s lives except for the hope that they would be relevant. He stood with his head still in the phone booth studded with bits of stiff chewing gum and the usual FuckShitCockDickPussyLoveWar, swastikas, and hearts shot with arrows mingling in a dense graffiti garden, too sugary too angry too perverse-the sick sweet rotting mulch of the human heart.

If he continued his life in New York, he might never see his pitaji again. It happened all the time; ten years passed, fifteen, the telegram arrived, or the phone call, the parent was gone and the child was too late. Or they returned and found they’d missed the entire last quarter of a lifetime, their parents like photograph negatives. And there were worse tragedies. After the initial excitement was over, it often became obvious that the love was gone; for affection was only a habit after all, and people, they forget, or they become accustomed to its absence. They returned and found just the facade; it had been eaten from inside, like Cho Oyu being gouged by termites from within.

So, why couldn’t I get sucked into this story? Why was it that the TV, the internet, cooking, and even cleaning pulled me away from the story? I’m not sure. I found much of the writing to be hauntingly beautiful, but the story ultimately unsatisfying. When I finished it the other night, I’m sorry to say that I was relieved, and ready to move on to my next book.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and I read it for both my Book Awards Reading Challenge and my Man Booker Challenge.

Suite Française

Because I read mainly novels, the identity and experience of the author is usually immaterial to me. Of course, who they are and where they are from shape their words and the stories they tell, but seldom do I pay attention to these things. My belief is that the authors would want it to be so – that they would wish for their stories and characters to stand on their own, and to be authentic without our knowing anything about the artist who brought them to life.

Sometimes, however, this isn’t possible. Having looked at the copyright of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, I know going in that John Steinbeck is writing in the here and now. He is writing a story about events that are going on around him, and he doesn’t yet know what the future holds for the Joads, or for anyone else entrenched in the Depression.

I remember feeling this way when I read The Diary of Anne Frank. That I knew her tragic fate going in, but when she put her words, her hopes and dreams, to paper, she still clung to the hope of a future ahead, outside of the Secret Annex.

Which brings me to Suite Française, a novel divided into two parts, by Irene Némirovsky. The knowledge that while she was writing these words, the war was raging around her, and she did not know whether she would live or die, permeates and perfumes every page of this novel. That she intended it to be a novel in five parts, but died in Auschwitz with only two parts complete, makes it even more poignant.

The first part of the book, Storm in June, tells the stories of several families and individuals fleeing Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. The stories told are from very different points of view, from the wealthy woman trying to keep her family heirlooms together, along with her ailing father-in-law, her children, and her servants, to the married couple who work at a bank, and fear mainly for their son, who is a prisoner of war, but also for their jobs, their security, and their lives. There is a priest, trying to transport a group of teen-agers from what can only be described as a correctional facility, to safety, while deep in his heart, he wishes to be far away from them, as he sees no evidence of God within them. There is the aesthete, proud of his figurine collection, and of the good luck (and smarts!) that conspired to leave him single and childless at a time when so much worry would be wasted on caring about another human being.

Some of his friends had gone, but he was neither Jewish nor a Mason, thank God, he thought with a scornful smile. He had never been involved in politics and didn’t see why he wouldn’t be left alone, a poor man like him, very quiet, very harmless, who never hurt anybody and who loved nothing in this world but his porcelain collection. He thought, on a more serious note, that this was the secret of his happiness amid so much upheaval. He loved nothing, at least nothing that time could distort, that death could carry away; he’d been right not to have married, not to have had children…My God, everyone else had been taken in. He’d been the only clever one.

The second story is Dolce, and takes place two years later, in a small village during the occupation. The families of the village are required to take soldiers into their homes, to live with them and adjust to their presence. The glimpse of both sides of this situation, and of a young (married) French woman who falls in love with a young (married) German soldier who comes to live with her, and the events that ultimately pull them apart, are gripping.

“He asked my permission to go into the garden to pick some strawberries. I couldn’t exactly refuse. You’re forgetting he’s in charge here now, unfortunately…He’s being polite, but he could take whatever he wants, go wherever he pleases and even throw us out into the street. He wears kid gloves to claim his rights as a conqueror. I can’t hold that against him. I think he’s right. We’re not on a battlefield. We can keep all our feelings deep inside. Superficially at least, why not be polite and considerate? Ther’e something inhuman about our situation. Why make it worse? It isn’t…it isn’t reasonable, Mother.” Lucile spoke so passionately that she surprised even herself.

These are unfinished stories, not polished or edited as Ms. Némirovsky would surely have wanted them to be. She had long term plans for some of these characters, as evidenced in her notes, included in an appendix at the back of the book. Some of them were to spill over into the remaining three stories. One was to be titled Captivity, and it sounds like it would have been the story of characters in a concentration camp. For the final two stories, she was waiting to see what would happen, wanted them to be based upon real events, and to have them talk to readers well into the future. I only wish she had been able to finish her book.

~ DoSoEvAyMo
1. Get Genevieve groomed so she’ll be prettiful (and smell prettiful) for Thanksgiving next week.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

I loved this book. Again, it was a quick read, which I seem to be getting a lot of lately, so I polished it off in 2 sittings.

The first thing I noticed when I started this book was that the first chapter appeared to be chapter 2. Hmmm. Did I get a bum copy? Doesn’t look like a bum copy. The next chapter is 3, then 5, then 7. Oh, OK, prime numbers. Christopher Boone is writing a murder mystery, and he is an autistic savant living in Swindon, England, and loves ‘maths’. He finds great comfort in numbers and the way they work…it helps him to cope with the rest of the world, which he definitely doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand emotions, or people’s emotions and facial expressions. He likes maths and science and animals. The book starts with Christopher discovering the still-warm body of a neighbor’s dog on her lawn, speared by a garden fork. Christopher liked the dog, and resolves to find out who the killer is, and to write a book detailing his quest. So he does what any good detective would do…he starts asking questions. His questions lead him on a journey where he discovers not only who killed the dog, but also some secrets that throw his world into a spiral that ends with him stretching amazingly outside of his comfort zone.

What I liked best about the book, I think, was Christopher’s ‘voice’. I liked how he detailed the rules that help him get through life, the rules that can help him to ground himself and make him feel safe when the world is somewhat out of control.

Mr. Jeavons, the psychologist at the school, once asked me why 4 red cars in a row made it a Good Day, and 3 red cars in a row made it a Quite Good Day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a Super Good Day, and why 4 yellow cars in a row made it a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks. He said that I was clearly a very logical person, so he was surprised that I should think like this because it wasn’t very logical.

I said that I liked things to be in a nice order. And one way of things being in a nice order was to be logical. Especially if those things were numbers or an argument. But there were other ways of putting things in a nice order. And that was why I had Good Days and Black Days. And I said that some people who worked in an office came out of their house in the morning and saw that the sun was shining and it make them feel happy, or they saw that it was raining and it made them feel sad, but the only difference was the weather and if they worked in an office the weather didn’t have anything to do with whether they had a good day or a bad day.

About 1/3 of the way into the book, Christopher makes a discovery that throws him for a huge loop, and from that point on, I couldn’t put the book down. I had to know what was going to happen, where the book was going with this, was he going to be able to cope with the new reality in which he found himself, seeing as how 4 yellow cars in a row could make him stop eating and communicating, and he was unable to stand being touched by anyone, even family.

I liked this book a lot, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I am looking forward to future novels from this author. This book was Mark Haddon’s debut novel (though he’s written childrens books before), and what a debut…it won the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year, and the 2004 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. I read it for the Book Awards Reading Challenge.

~
In an odd moment of synchronicity, Christopher likes to watch his Blue Planet video…and, the same day I read about him watching Blue Planet, and he described which episode he was watching, Maya was watching TV, and started watching that very same episode. She rarely watches Blue Planet, doesn’t have the DVD or anything, so it was indeed coincidence. She was excited, because it was talking about underwater mountains and volcanoes that she has studied in her Earth Science class, and I was excited because Christopher had talked about these same mountains and volcanoes in my book. Groovy, huh?

Number the Stars

Number the Stars is the story of Annemarie, a 10 year old Danish Christian girl in 1943. Denmark is occupied by the Nazis, and now they are preparing to deport all of the Jews, including Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, and her family. Annemarie’s family works with Ellen’s family to spirit them away, and the events occurring around Annemarie do not always make sense. But she wants her friend to be safe, desperately, and is willing to be brave to help.

While the characters in Number the Stars are fictional, the events portrayed are very much real. I had never read anything about the rescue of the Danish Jews before. What an amazing display of collective resistance. The people of Denmark worked together to save the vast majority of Denmark’s Jewish population, by spiriting them away to neighboring Switzerland.

I read Number the Stars for my 2nds Reading Challenge, where the challenge is to read a book by an author of whose work you’ve only read one other book before. I added it to my Book Awards Reading Challenge as well, as it received the 1990 Newbery Medal.

Number the Stars is a Children’s Book, and reads like one, but it is among the best in the genre. However, sometimes truth can be even more poignant than fiction. Lois Lowry includes an afterword to the book, discussing the facts and details of the rescue, and in that afterword she included a quote which spoke to me, much like the words of Anne Frank. These are the words of a young man, Kim Malthe-Bruun, a 21-year old member of the Danish Resistance.

…and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.

That would be a great gift indeed, and one that is needed here and now, more than ever.

March

I’ve been intending to read March, by Geraldine Brooks, for awhile now. I first brought it up way back in January of ’06, when I was pretty new to blogging, and was thinking of books I might like to read. Well, I went book shopping, and intended to buy it, but they didn’t have it, so I grabbed another book by the same author, Year of Wonders, which I really liked. Finally, I bought March, but I put it on my bookshelf, and then it got packed away with 99% of our other books, and is now all cozy in our rented storage space, in an attempt to convince prospective buyers we don’t live with clutter, and thus, they won’t either if they just buy this house. So…I put it on not one, but TWO reading challenges, and grabbed it from the library. I started it last week, and I was hooked!

If you’re familiar with Little Women, the story by Louisa May Alcott, you know it is the tale of a year in the life of the March daughters, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, and their mother, Marmee, and their growth and changes while their father is away at war. Mr. March is an abolitionist preacher who has gone along with the Union army in the Civil War, hoping to provide spiritual solace to the troops, and to ‘walk the walk’ that he has been talking for so long, about the sacrifices required to defeat the scourge of slavery. (And no, he would never say something so modern as ‘walk the walk’…that was mine.) His story is told partially in the form of letters home to Marmee and the girls, partially in his remembrances of his past, and partially in his telling of his current trip with the troops. He talks of his journey into the South when he was a young man of 18, how he was seduced for a short while by the beauty and gentile life led by the plantation owners there, and how he was disabused of his perceptions of their gentility. He came back North a more fervent abolitionist, and became a preacher. He tells of his meeting and the short courtship of his wife, Marmee, a much more fervent abolitionist than he. He tells of his dealings with John Brown, and what those dealings cost him. It is an intriguing story.

Toward the end of the story, he is layed low by fever, and Marmee is called to help him, just as happens in Little Women. At this point, the story changes to Marmee’s perspective for a few chapters, and we see that some of the assumptions that Mr. March has made, assumptions with repercussions deep and final, and based on his beliefs of what Marmee wanted and admired in a husband, were indeed false assumptions.

The part of the story that is told in the present tense, of his trip with the troops, and his time spent on a plantation that is being run by a northerner, with slaves who have been freed and are for the first time hoping to by paid for their labor, is heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time.

Brooks did extensive research on the period and on the Alcott family. The part of Mr. March is based upon Alcott’s father, a transcendentalist who kept company with the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom play parts in March.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the writing, and for the glimpse of the abolitionist movement it gave. It was also nice to return, briefly, to the world of Little Women. Actually, when I returned March to the library yesterday, I checked out Little Women, in the hopes that Maya will enjoy it as much as I did.

Vernon God Little

What if you were a 15 year old white boy in Texas with some sort of irritable bowl condition, and your best friend were a gay Mexican boy who couldn’t take the cruel teasing of his classmates, and shot and killed 16 people at high school, including himself?

What if, because Jesus (your best friend) is dead and also a murderer, and the townspeople want answers, and blood, you suddenly find yourself in jail, not yet accused of a crime, but coming close?

What if you befriended a CNN reporter, the only semi-decent reporter in town, only to have him betray you, sleep with your mother, and then you find out that he’s actually a Machiavellian opportunist who would sell his own blind mother down the river for an opportunity to make it in media, and that in actuality, he’s a TV repairman with delusions of grandeur?

What if you had secrets you were trying to cover up, and evidence was starting to point to your guilt, and you wanted some time for the truth to simmer and bubble and somehow find its way to the surface?

Well, if you were Vernon Little, you’d get the heck out of dodge for awhile. And since Vernon saw the 80’s film, Against All Odds, he wants to live in a hut in Mexico with his fantasy girl, Taylor. So begins the adventure in this book, and a character compared mostly with Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. I’m not sure I loved this book, but it definitely held my interest, and I read the second half of it in one sitting. And I must admit, the over the top blood thirst of the media in this book is begging for a film adaptation.

Vernon God Little won the 2003 Man Booker Prize, and I read it for my Book Awards Challenge.

Waiting

Waiting is the story of a man, Lin, who lives in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. He is a doctor in a military hospital, and is satisfied with his life there. His aging parents live in a remote village, and want to arrange a marriage for Lin, so that the wife will care for them in their illness and old age. Lin agrees, and so he is married to Shuyu, a devoted and old fashioned woman who cares very well for Lin’s parents, and gives him a daughter, Min. Lin does not love Shuyu, and never has, but he is grateful to her for all that she has done for him and for his family. He is too ashamed of her to bring her to the city where he lives for most of the year, however, because she is so old fashioned and has bound feet. So Shuyu and Min continue to live in the countryside, even after the death of Lin’s parents, and they are content there.

Lin finds himself falling in love with a modern woman who works with him at the hospital, Manna. Manna wants Lin to divorce Shuyu, so that he can marry her. Every summer, Lin goes home to request a divorce, and sometimes Shuyu says yes, and sometimes she says no, but when the time comes to go before the judge, she can never go through with it, so they stay married. The law says that Lin can divorce Shuyu after they have been separated (have not slept together) for 18 years, without her consent. So begins the waiting…Lin and Manna are waiting to be together, and they decide not to consummate their relationship until they are husband and wife.

This book showed some of the sad practicality that can determine a person’s life. Lin would never have chosen Shuyu as a wife, had he had a choice…but he didn’t have a choice. He needed someone to care for his parents. Manna has times when she is more than willing to give up on Lin, because she realizes it is going to be a long, hard journey, and might fall apart before the 18 years is up. But her other opportunities to marry are few and far between, and her reputation is pretty much destroyed by her relationship with Lin, even though they are celibate.

Shuyu, the dedicated, loyal wife, is the only one with any choice in the story…she may not have chosen to spend her best years caring for her husband’s aging parents, but she loves them and sees it as her duty, and does not resent the obligation. She chooses to stay married to Lin as long as possible, even knowing that he does not want to be married to her anymore. She is the character in the story with whom I was most sympathetic, even though she didn’t get a lot of time dedicated to her story.

Lin mostly irritated me. He couldn’t be loyal to his wife, and yet I was never sure he was truly passionate about Minna, and just sort of went along with her idea of how things should go. He did have the decency to realize that by being her ‘boyfriend’ he had destroyed her opportunities elsewhere, but he wasn’t aware enough ahead of time to make it easier for her.

From a western point of view, we might be willing to give Lin the benefit of the doubt…why should he stay in a loveless marriage, when he has a chance to be happy elsewhere? He is willing to continue supporting his wife and (now grown) daughter, so they will not be affected much by a divorce. But I didn’t see that divorcing her made him any happier. He just went from one set of obligations to another. When faced with this realization, a voice inside of Lin tells him:

Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others’ opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace.

Overall, the book was well written, but I found it dissatisfying. The end promised no resolution to the issues at hand, and no happiness for Lin, which was frustrating. Not that he was miserable…just more of the same, sleepwalking through life.

I read this book for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. It won the PEN/Faulkner award, in 2000.

Runaway

Last week, while banished from my house so that painter men could change our walls from a boring white to an inviting brown, I was thankful to live in beautiful California, and that our townhouse has a pool just outside the front door. So, I sat beside the pool and finished the next book in my Book Awards Reading Challenge, Runaway, by Alice Munro. This book won the Giller Prize, which is an award given for outstanding works of Canadian fiction.

If you’re unaware of Alice Munro’s work, it is almost exclusively comprised of short stories, and Runaway is no exception. There are 8 short stories in this volume, all of them about Canadian women. With so many short stories, I feel as though I am getting a glimpse of a story…like the author didn’t have enough of an idea to write a novel, so they decided to keep it brief instead. With Munro’s stories, however, I feel like she is giving me an entire story in a very brief period of time. There are no wasted words in the genre, and I get the feeling that Munro doesn’t like to waste words.

I liked all of the stories in the book, though perhaps my favorites might be the trilogy focused on a character named Juliet. The first story in the series, Chance tells of Juliet’s chance meeting with a man on a train, a meeting which changes her life forever. The second story, Soon, takes place a few years after Chance, and is about a visit that Juliet and her infant daughter, Penelope, make to her parents. The third, and saddest story in the group, Silence, tells of Juliet and Penelope’s estrangement…you only see the story from Juliet’s side, you don’t get to find out exactly why it is that Penelope has decided to distance herself so completely from her mother.

Fans of An Affair to Remember will appreciate Tricks, the story of a young woman who escapes the obligations of her daily life, caring for her sister, who is ill, by attending a Shakespeare Festival in a neighboring village once a year.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Every story is full of well-developed, complicated characters. The motivations and actions of the characters are so rich and odd, you can’t help but want to come back for more.

It was a fine day by the pool, I must say.

Gilead

I’ve always envied men who could watch their wives grow old. Boughton lost his wife five years ago, and he married before I did. His oldest boy has snow white hair. His grandchildren are mostly married. And as for me, it is still true that I will never see a child of mine grow up and I will never see a wife of mine grow old. I’ve shepherded a good many people through their lives, I’ve baptized babies by the hundred, and all that time I have felt as though a great part of life was closed to me. Your mother says I was like Abraham. But I had no old wife and no promise of a child. I was just getting by on books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches.

Gilead is a book told in two chapters…the first chapter being about 215 pages long, and the second chapter being the last 32 pages. It is told in the form of a letter written by a dying, elderly preacher, John Ames, to his 7 year old son. He knows that his son will miss out on knowing his father as he grows up, and wants to leave something of his true self to the boy. The title, Gilead, refers to the fictional small Iowa town in which they live. A town famous for its involvement in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War. In fact, the narrator’s grandfather went on many guerrilla type missions with the famous John Brown.

Ames wants to give his son a taste for his thoughts, dreams, and hopes. He wants his son to understand his theological views on the world. He wants him to know how much the love of his wife and child have meant to him, though they came late in his life. He tells stories of his grandfather, of his journey with his father to find the grave of his grandfather after he disappears, and of his brother’s struggle with religion in a house full of preachers. He tells of his friendship with his best friend, Boughton, which has spanned their lifetimes. He tells of his namesake, John Ames Boughton, aka, ‘Jack’, the son of his best friend, whom he deeply distrusts as a man of no honor. He spends quite a bit of time writing to his son about how he dislikes Jack, how he does not trust him, how he fears that Jack will take advantage of his wife after he is gone. This anger and distrust for Jack takes up a large part of the first chapter, and a large part of Ames’ thoughts and energies.

In the second chapter, Jack tells the reverend a startling story of his own life, one that in some ways is completely different than that of Ames, but also one that Ames can sympathize with totally, and one that allows Ames to let go of his anger and distrust for the younger man.

A couple of my book blog friends have also read this book, and loved it. They said they loved the contemplative nature of the writing, the depth of feeling and the meandering tale. Me? Not so much. I found myself bored by most of the book. There were moments that touched me, and I have to wonder if I would have been more pulled into the tale if I were religious, so that the references to scripture meant more to me. I’m not sure. The themes he addresses are universal, so they should reach out universally, right? I liked the ending, liked the last 100 pages more than the rest of the book. I don’t know that I would recommend this book, since I wasn’t thrilled by it myself, though I have to wonder if Starshine’s new Husby, having just graduated from Seminary, might really enjoy it, and get far more from it than I did. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, clearly many people have really loved this book.

Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2005, and is the 4th book I’ve read so far for my Book Awards Reading Challenge.

The Road

What if you lived your life for just one person? And that person lived just for you, so you were ‘each other’s world entire’? I think there’s a romantic sense of that feeling, of being consumed by a new love affair, a new baby, a feeling that without that person, life would not be worth living. But we all have other reasons to live, whether we acknowledge them or not. There are family, friends, helpful strangers, animals, nature, books, work, music, whatever it is that gets you through. But what if you didn’t? No family, no friends, no helpful strangers, no faith in God, not enough food, no clean water, no trees, no animals, no blue sky? What if all you had was one other person, and a long, difficult journey, in a world where snow comes down gray, where every living thing, save a few wandering humans, has been killed, either by a nuclear bomb, or by the ferocious first years following the explosions? Would you want to travel that road?

That is the road on which the unnamed father and son must travel in The Road, a post-apolyptic novel that is so bleak, so sad, that there were pages when I had to close the book and struggle not to cry. But it’s so well written, I found myself getting past the nausea brought on by some of the images, and coming back to the story.

The man and the boy are trying to stay alive. The man wants to get them to the warmer weather at the coast, and further south, so that they won’t freeze to death come winter, which seems to come earlier every year. They have to travel the roads with care, always in the desperate search for food, trying to stave off starvation, always on the lookout for ‘bad guys’, marauders who resort to cannibalism and slavery in order to stay alive.

In the evening they tramped out across a field trying to find a place where their fire would not be seen. Dragging the cart behind them over the ground. So little of promise in that country. Tomorrow they would find something to eat. Night overtook them on a muddy road. They crossed into a field and plodded on toward a distant stand of trees skylighted stark and black against the last of the visible world. By the time they got there it was dark of night. He got a fire going. The wood was damp but he shaved the dead bark off with his knife and he stacked brush and sticks all about to dry in the heat. Then he spread the sheet of plastic on the ground and got the coats and blankets from the cart and he took off their damp and muddy shoes and they sat there in silence with their hands outheld to the flames. He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’s had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom short of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

The man promised the boy that they are the ‘good guys’, that they carry the fire with them; that they will not eat other people, even if it means their own death. He tries to maintain their own humanity, and for the father, that is as much humanity as he has left. Having the son as his ‘world entire’ means that nothing else matters. Just keeping his son alive. Not others who they meet on the road, some who desperately need help. Simply put, if the man and the boy stop to help, if they share their food and energy, they will die. That’s all.

The dialog is sparse, and reveals the honesty and love between the father and son…and at times, it is the dialog that is the most brutal and honest.

It was harder going even than he would have guessed. In an hour they’d made perhaps a mile. He stopped and looked back at the boy. The boy stopped and waited.
You think we’re going to die, dont you?
I dont know.
We’re not going to die.
Okay.
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
I dont know.
Stop saying I dont know.
Okay.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
We dont have anything to eat.
We’ll find something.
Okay.
How long do you think people can go without food?
I dont know.
But how long do you think?
Maybe a few days.
And then what? You fall over dead?
Yes.
Well you dont. It takes a long time. We have water. That’s the most important thing. You dont last very long without water.
Okay.
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
He studied him. Standing there with his hands in the pockets of his outsized pinstriped suitcoat.
Do you think I lie to you?
No.
But you think I might lie to you about dying.
Yes.
Okay, I might. But we’re not dying.
Okay.

Keeping his emaciated son alive is all that the man has left. The goal, and the love for his son, his need to protect his son against all threats, his fear that someday, he will have to kill his son, in order to protect him from a fate worse than death. Already, every night as he tries to sleep, hungry, cold, and scared, he envies the dead. The boy, born into the post nuclear world, craves a bit more humanity than this bleak survival. A bit more assurance that their struggle hasn’t turned them into ‘the bad guys’.

I found this story to be harrowing, devastating, and still, not without its own beauty, and even a tiny glimmer of hope. Cormac McCarthy won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Road, and I read it as part of my award winners book challenge.

UPDATE: I just read on Wikipedia that there’s talk of a movie…(huge plot spoilers in the Wiki article, so be warned)…some of the scenes were so horrific, I don’t know that I could stomach a film version. I think I’ll pass, no matter how good the book was.

My Name Is Red

My Name is Red is a somewhat convoluted murder mystery that takes place in late 16th century Istanbul. The main characters of the story are miniaturists, artists who draw and color the illustrations for books prior to the printing press, when books might be taken apart and rebound in a different sequence, depending upon who is paying for the story that is being told.

The Sultan has commissioned a a new book, and he wants part of it to be painted in the new European style, showing things as they appear to people, rather than in the Ottoman tradition of showing the world through the eyes of Allah. For instance, European portraits were painted with the subject of the painting in the center foreground of the painting. This would be considered blasphemous, because to put someone or something in the center of a painting would be to invite viewers to worship it on the same level that one would worship Allah. The miniaturists in the story are divided in their ideas of what to do about this development…some wanting to stick with the tradition that says nothing has been painted well and properly until it has been painted at least a thousand times before, and to sign your name on a painting is an admission that your work is so forgettable that no one would know who had painted it without you pointing it out to them; others wanting to explore this strange new world in which you paint a person with distinguishable features where, upon seeing them in a painting, you could pick that person out of a crowd, even without ever having met them before. Amongst all of this wondering what to do and what to think, one of the miniaturists is murdered, followed by another, even more shocking murder. The suspects? The other miniaturists in the guild.

The story is told from many different points of view: the various miniaturists, including the murderer and another miniaturist named Black, who is trying to win the love of his beautiful cousin by solving the second murder. In addition, chapters are told from the perspectives of a dog, a corpse, a coin, and the color Red, amongst others.

The strengths of the book, for me, were in the traditional narrative…the solving of the murder, and the love story between Black and his beautiful cousin, Shekure. These were well written and gripping, and drew me in, making me want to know what was going to happen, and if Black and Shekure would end up together…or even if they SHOULD end up together.

The weakness of the book is in the chapters devoted to the art of the era. While I found some of the detail to be interesting, and certainly learning of the cultural reasons behind that era’s views on individuality, style, and pridefulness was fascinating, other chapters were cumbersome and tiring, and I found myself wishing they would end.

I won this book in a drawing on Lotus’ blog, and I’m also including it in my list of award winners, as it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think My Name is Red would appeal to those who are interested in Persian art, and in the ways that Persian art, European art, and Chinese art influenced each other during this era of ‘globalization’.

Song that always comes to mind when I hear or read the word Istanbul, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)“. The version I know is a remake, the original having been recorded in the 50s. I loved They Might Be Giants from the first time I heard Birdhouse in your Soul on the way to school at SF State in Ted’s little silver CRX, on Live 105. I had to go to Tower RIGHT AFTER CLASS and buy the CD. I know, they’re annoyingly clever. So what. Not too many songs do that to me anymore, sadly. Download both and enjoy.

The Giver

I’ve just finished the first book in my Book Awards Reading Challenge, The Giver. The Giver is a children’s book, written for kids about Maya’s age (aka, probably found in the young adult section in the library), and it won the Newbery Medal in 1994. The Giver is sort of science fiction, set in the future, and at first appears to be a Utopian setting. The main character is Jonas, a 12-year old boy. At the age of 12, children learn what their careers are going to be. A group of elders watches them for a couple of years prior to them turning 12, while they volunteer throughout the community, so that the elders can see where the childrens’ interests and skills lie. Jonas is selected for a very rare role, that of the Receiver of Memory. In this Utopian society, memories have been lost to most of the population. Children only have contact with their parents until they grow up and move out, and thus there are no stories handed down, no grandparents, no history. The elders know that some wisdom comes from knowing what happened before, however, so they keep the Receiver of Memories around, so they can ask him or her for advice when something new happens, something that they haven’t dealt with before. The Receiver of Memories has memories going back to perhaps the beginning of time, memories of starvation, war, disease, happiness, joy, love, holidays, everything.

I could go on and tell you more, but I don’t want to ruin the story for you. This was an excellent book, a quick, easy read, and one that I would recommend to anyone.

Book Awards Reading Challenge

I discovered a new book reading challenge that I’m all over like a cheap suit…this one is called the Book Awards Reading Challenge. Coincidentally, Ted got me hooked last week on yet ANOTHER internet timesuck, which would be goodreads, where you can keep track of all of the books that you ever remember reading, look at what your friends are reading, compare your lists and ratings with them, and figure out what NEW books you might want to read. Fun, huh? Definately. (Mom, it looks like you can upload your spreadsheet maybe…if you want another time suck in your life. 😉 ) Back to the challenge…this challenge is to read one award winning book a month, starting in July 2007, and ending in June of 2008. So that’s 12 award winning books in 12 months. Cool. So, without further ado, here’s my list, in no particular order of when I’m going to read them, etc.:

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai – Man Booker Prize, 2006.

I believe I own this, but as I don’t catalog my books, and the majority of them are packed and in storage right now, it will have to wait until after we move. But I spoke to a woman on BART about it one day, and she said it was SO good, she was rivited, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

The GiverThe Giver, Lois Lowry – Newbery Award, 1994.

I see this book a lot at the bookstore, but I’ve never picked it up. While perusing a few people’s lists on goodreads, though, this book kept popping up. So I’ll give it a go, and since it’s a children’s book, Maya can read it after me. 🙂 Double plus good.

Waiting, Ha Jin – PEN/Faulkner, 2000.

I borrowed this book from Cherry a few years ago, and haven’t picked it up for some reason. Now I will have an excuse. If I like it, maybe she’ll want it back..hmmm.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy – Pulitzer, 2007.

I recently won a book of my choice via a drawing on Lotus Reads, and this was one that I didn’t pick, but looked really good. So I’ll grab it from the library and check it out.

March, Geraldine Brooks – Pulitzer, 2006.

This is the story of Mr. March, the absent father from Little Women, who was off at the Civil War when that book took place. This is, as I understand it, his side of the story. I read another book written by Ms. Brooks last year, Year of Wonders, which was very good. So I’m looking forward to this one.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides – Pulitzer, 2003.

I’ve seen this one around, and I’ll have to wait until I unpack to see if I actually own it. But again, it was on a lot of people’s lists over at goodreads, so I want to give it a shot.

The Shipping News, Annie Proulx – Pulitzer, 1994.

I haven’t heard much about this one, but what I’ve heard is good, so I’ll give it a try.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson – National Book Critics’ Circle Award, 2004.

I thought I had read this, and it was just so-so. But then I realized I had it confused with another book, Gilgamesh (not the epic of), which was, well, so-so. So I want to see if this one is as good as people say it is.

Atonement, Ian McEwan – National Book Critics’ Circle Award, 2002.

I may own this…not sure. But I’ve heard great things, so it’s on the list!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon – Costa Whitbread, 2003.

I’ve not heard of this award, but this one has been on a lot of folks’ lists, so I’ll give it a shot.

Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre – Man Booker, 2003.

I’ve never heard of this book, but it sounds intruiging. It’s a dark comedy, about a small town in the aftermath of a school shooting. Not a cheery subject, to be sure, but isn’t that the point of dark comedy?

Runaway, Alice Munro – Giller, 2004.

I haven’t heard of this award, either, but I really like Alice Munro, so I’ll take it.

If you’re interested in participating in this very cool book challenge, go on over to 3M’s Book Awards Challenge blog. She’s made it very easy for you, with all of the awards right there in the sidebar, and if you click on the name of the award, she has lists of books that have received that award, listed by year. Very cool, huh? Thanks, 3M, for making it so easy, and what a GREAT idea for a challenge! Thanks also to Kookiejar, because I found this challenge on her blog. 🙂