Monday, March 7, 2011

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

"First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
           You are going to die."

And so Markus Zusak's novel, The Book Thief, begins.  Told from Death's point of view, The Book Thief, is the story of Liesel Meminger and her encounters with Death in war-torn Germany.  As Death explains in the prologue, "It's just a small story really, about, among other things: A girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery."

But it's not really a small story at all.  Well over 500 pages, The Book Thief, is a book those who love to read will love to read.  Since these are Death's words and it's WWII, it's not a stretch for the reader to know and understand that dying will litter the pages.  What the reader may not expect is the tightness of the threat and the burning of the eyes as the story unfolds.  And, should the reader expect tears, s/he may not expect laughing through them.  Well deserving of the numerous awards lavished upon it, this novel grabs you and holds until the last page and long after - leaving you reeling.  And, if you're like me, when you read the last page, you read those last words one more time before closing the book, pulling it to you, and closing your eyes.  And you see colors.  And words.  And know you've read something great.  And that for a brief moment, you were apart of it.

The novel opens with Liesel on a train with her mother and brother.  She is nine and her brother is dead.  The dead brother is how she first encounters Death.  The dead brother also results in her first theft of a book.  She steals The Gravedigger's Handbook.  She is taken from her mother and left with Rosa and Hans Hubermann, her foster parents.  This is due to her mother's involvement in communism.    Rosa is gruff and often violent with the child.  Hans is soft and gentle.  Liesel opens herself up to him quickly.  In the dead of night, when the world is sleeping, he teaches her to read the book she'd stolen.

Hans is trying to gain acceptance into "the party."  This is hard because he is known as a "Jew lover" because he'd painted over the vile words some placed on a Jewish shopkeeper's door.  The party will not accept him.  Hans finally gets accepted.  But it is as a means of punishment.  When the Jews are marched through the town, he hands one bread.  He is beaten for this.  And then sent off to fight for Hitler.  (A man he loathes.  A hatred he must swallow for his family's safety.)  He is a painter.  And an accordion player.  The accordion is ultimately what brings the Jewish fist fighter to their home for refuge.  A refuge they willingly give.

Rosa, for all her harshness, is to be admired.  She does not question her husband when Max shows up for safety.  She feels for Liesel when Liesel keeps writing her mother, who will never answer her.  And when Hans is sent to fight a war that isn't his, she clutches his accordion to her chest - bruising her heart with her love.  It may be tough love, but it's strong love.

Liesel's best friend is Rudy - a beautiful blond haired boy who wants to be Jesse Jackson.  Once, he paints himself black and runs through the town.  Hitler wants him.  His father refuses.  For this, his father is sent off to join the war.  Liesel loves him as children love.  Rudy grows to hate Hitler.  The two encounter a downed plane with a dead American inside.  (This is the second time Death encounters Liesel.)  The young boy places a stuffed bear next to the soldier - a man society screams is an enemy.  Death with take Rudy as well.  Death will take everyone.  Liesel finally gives Rudy the kiss he'd been begging for since meeting her when he is cold and dead.  Your heart will break.

Liesel steals books.  The Grave-digger's Handbook is but her first.  Her other comes from a Jewish bookburning.  It is wet and hot when she hides it against her chest.  It burns her.  But she reads it.  She then steals from the mayor's wife's library.  But it isn't stealing.  The white-haired woman opens the library for the girl.  She leaves her notes.  Liesel gives her life.  (And when her entire home is destroyed, Liesel finds solace and refuge in her home.)

When Max shows up, Liesel is uncertain of him.  He is a "Jew."  But she begins to love him.  He is the one secret she keeps from Rudy.  He is the one secret that tightly links the small family.  He writes her books.  When the family hides in bomb shelters, he comes out to see the stars.  When it snows, she brings the snow to the basement so they can build a snowman.  They live as best they can.  He writes her a book.  He paints the pages of Mein Kampf.  The book of hate was used to hide a key.  Once safe, Max paints the pages white and writes over it with his own story.  After Max leaves (he must - it is no longer safe), he leaves the book with Rosa to give to Liesel.

When the Jews are marched through town, Liesel watches for one Jew.  She does not hide from him or from her connection with him.  She runs to him, calling his name.  She pays for this.

Liesel begins to write her own story.  When the town is bombed and her entire street (and family) destroy, Death returns.  Liesel is spared, but she leaves her book in the rubble.  Death steals it.  It is only fitting.  Death does not see Liesel again until years later when he comes to get her.  She sits up to meet him.

The novel ends:

"A last note from your narrator:  I am haunted by humans."

This novel is fantastic.  And one any lover of words, life and love must read.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

W. Somerset Maugham - The Razor's Edge

There’s a story behind this review and, as all stories must, it involves a pretty eyed boy and a girl who thought she knew everything. The short version is thus: your bookslut had never heard of William Somerset Maugham – a man who just happened to be a pretty eyed boy’s favorite author. For Christmas, I received two novels by W. Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge and The Magician. It makes my heart happy when someone I love points me in the direction of a book like this – a book I can see, taste, smell – a book I can see myself in. Maybe it’s the influence of a pretty eyed boy or maybe it’s that sensation I get when I FEEL the words of a book, but The Razor’s Edge is on my “special” shelf.

William Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular authors of the 1930s and it escapes me as to how I’d never come across his name or his works. I guess when you turn your back on the canon and the works of dead white guys, you miss out. A novelist, playwright, and short story writer, Maugham’s body of work is quite extensive. The Razor’s Edge (1944) was one of his last major works and has a bit of a Gatsby-like quality to it.

It is the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I veteran on a search for self, meaning, and God. While the story is his, it’s not. I felt that so much of the life in this story is found in the women that love and are loved by Larry – Isabel Maturin and Sophie Macdonald. (I saw myself in Sophie in ways that made me uncomfortable.) Perhaps the most memorable character is Elliott Templeton – a snobby art dealer who doesn’t quite understand that he’s a snob. Elliott is the narrator’s tie-in with the rest of the odd bunch that the story revolves around.

The story opens with a bit of an explanation and is billed as a “true account.” Maugham is the narrator and an active participant in the actions. The only time he is referred to by name (at least that I recall) is when Larry refers to him as “Mr. M”. I usually take issue with books about authors and as I read the first chapter, my heart was already turning against this work. But I quickly abandoned any prejudice I had and fell head over heels.

A brief summary will tell you that Isabel, Elliott’s niece, is engaged to Larry. Sophie is one of their friends, as is Gray. Money, prestige, power and privilege soak the pages of the novel and their social circle. But Larry, after watching a man die during the war, is removed. He wants to find salvation. He wants to find God so he can understand God. And he realizes the path to God isn’t paved in money and social standing. Isabel never quite understand that, and when Larry decides to travel on his quest for self, she marries Gray – a man accustomed to the finer things in life and a man who can afford her rich taste. Sophie appears early on as a quiet girl at a dinner table. She doesn’t show up again until Paris at a seedy bar where she’s drunk, doped up, and fucking away her troubles. She’d lost her husband and child and her search for self resulted in burying herself and her memories. Her eyes were only green and alive when doped up, as the dear author noticed. At this point, Gray has lost all his money after the crash and the family is living off of Elliott’s generosity in Paris. Larry is visiting. Larry decides to marry Sophie. To save her. Sophie bails on the arrangement and later tells our narrator: “Darling, when it came to the point, I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.” Of course, things aren’t nearly that simple as Isabel is at the core of her decision to walk, no, run away from Larry. And it’s jealousy that prompts Isabel’s actions. The female jealousy wears a fancier coat than that of jealous of men which bears arms, but it cuts just as sure and quick in the end. The narrator tells her she’ll end up with her throat cut. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she grinned. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

There are parts of the novel I would cut completely. I realize that the parts I’d cut are really what the story is supposed to be about, but there is so much more lurking in the pages for me to focus my energies on Larry and his search for God. What Maugham says about love and money and society far outweigh any faith points for me. I also think the story could have been stronger if presented differently; parts of the story seem misplaced and the narrator apologizes for such placement and tries to explain as he is telling the story. This was jarring and disruptive. That said, it was intentionally jarring and disruptive. There’s not a mark in this book that wasn’t thoughtfully considered and purposely placed. Books like this, structured like this, fleshed out like this, are works of art. Books like this are why I don’t read genre fiction often. Books like this are what make me a booksnob.  I don't have to like what he did - but I sure as hell respect it.

I could write much more about the story, the settings, the cast of characters, and the use of words, but I could never do it justice. Let me just say that Maugham is a man I have added to my list of writers I want to have a pint with and just listen to the stories they tell.