Friday, June 12, 2009

Books for Readers # 120

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #120

June 11, 2009

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THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak
Guest Reviewer:
Dreama Wyant Frisk

There are a few books which put down roots in your life. THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak is one. A quote from the New York Times on the book cover forewarns the reader of this: “Brilliant and hugely ambitious. . . . It’s the kind of book that can be LIFE CHANGING.” Still nothing can fully prepare the reader for the impact of this novel about ordinary people and their ability to find meaning and hope in the most dismal surroundings of a small town near Munich during the Jewish Holocaust.

The book cover also bears the imprint of the 2007 Michael L. Printz Honor Book award for young adult literature. It is surprising that this is a young adult book. (This reviewer’s teenage grandson recommended the novel and still “loves the book”.) In Zusak’s native Australia it is considered adult. Perhaps, it is in the young adult category because the main character is a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who comes to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann after her father, a communist, is taken away. Her relationship with the Hubermanns is a mainstay of the narrative. Her thievery of books, her disruptive behavior at school, and her fighting make this partly a coming of age story. Another young character is Liesel’s best friend, Rudy Steiner, who in an unforgettable scene smears charcoal on his body before a race to impersonate Jesse Owens. No adult should hesitate to pick up the novel because of the young adult designation.

The first few chapters are confusing and some might argue too difficult for adult as well as even sophisticated young readers. The difficulty mainly lies in the introduction to the narrator, Death. This is a kindly and shy Death who makes announcements, observes events, tries to avoid collecting souls, and is darkly humorous. His announcements are made in bold print and centered on the page with asterisks. His quirky personality is reminiscent of a Vonnegut character. Once this introduction to Death is made, the rhythm of the narrative is underway.

Death, like Liesel, has a way with words. Zusak plays out his central metaphor, the power of words. Max, the Jew hidden in the Hubermann basement, writes a book on pages cut from a copy of Mein Kampf. For lack of paper he whitewashes the pages, hangs them up to dry, and writes his story with a paintbrush. These pages including illustrations are displayed. It is a present for Liesel which deepens their bond and which she reads in the dark days of bombing around Munich. Liesel’s thievery of books provides a wallop of suspense throughout the almost 600 pages. Indeed, she first meets Death when she slips a book from a bonfire. In the end, it is the book which she writes that saves her life. Books are treasures.

The use of figurative language becomes the engine of the narrative. It is another reason why writers and lovers of literature will want to read the novel. Death speaks of the color of the smoke coming from the crematoriums. In the middle of a fight (and there is lots of fighting), Max dreams of boxing with Hitler. Liesel notices “utterly blue skies”. Always there is Rudy’s lemon yellow hair, and Papa’s silver eyes. “The moon is sewn into the sky. . . Clouds were stitched around it.” Nightmare becomes a consistent verb until it is customary to say that Liesel nightmares. Max nightmares.

Above all, this is not a maudlin or sentimental book and never, self –indulgent as it tells the triumph of hope and friendship. It is intricately constructed so that the reader is grounded inside the events. We can understand our place in this tragedy through the lives of these ordinary people. THE BOOK THIEF is a profoundly different kind of book about stories and who tells them.

-- Dreama Wyant Frisk


I just read Mark Rudd’s book UNDERGROUND: MY LIFE WITH SDS AND THE WEATHERMEN. It has had a fair amount of play in the media, including an awful review in the NEW YORK TIMES by a reviewer with zero interest in politics and a condescending nod to the story line about Rudd’s family. Actually, the story of Mark and his parents is very engaging, but the heart of the book is his hope that political organizers can learn from his mistakes– and his successes.

Because of the personal honesty you can appreciate this book even if you don’t have a fetish for the nineteen sixties. Rudd writes both about the development of his commitment to fight injustice and war and about how he left open organizing for a tiny sectarian group and ended up spending years underground. His greatest regrets are the failure of the young organizers of the late sixties to create a broad and lasting movement, and that he and his friends romanticized violence and revolutionary elitism. It is fascinating to see commitment trump common sense as well as democracy. Rudd’s personal life during the Weatherman and underground years was full of suffering, errors, and indeed a kind of insanity. He details all this, as well as his gradual and painstaking change.

Rudd says that he hopes the successes and failures of political organizing chronicled in his book can become an organizing tool for today's young activists, and I hope so too. I wonder how different the history of the left in the United States would have been if the youth movement of the late sixties had been less age-segregated– if there had been some accumulated wisdom floating around out there with all the reckless courage and indignation over the war mongering and imperialism of the United States.

For me personally, as a participant in the events at Columbia University where Mark got his start, the book reminded me of a lot of things: the excitement, of course, but also the rank sexism of the SDS chapter at Columbia University in 1968 (Guess who was detailed to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during the sit-ins?). It reminded me about how in spite of the near-worship by the SDS leadership of black radicals, there was almost no sense of what daily life was actually like for black students at Columbia and elsewhere.

Another interesting fact is that the Columbia University SDS chapter was highly Jewish, and Mark himself has a good article about the meaning of this available online at ). One more suggestion for further reading is a review of the book by Tom Hayden (author of SDS’s important Port Huron Statement– okay, also the ex-husband of Jane Fonda) at .

.....And now, for something completely different...

I re-read CRANFORD by “Mrs” Gaskell. She had a first name of course, Elizabeth, but back in the day she was called "Mrs".. Reamy Jansen suggested the book, which I read years ago and re-read this time quickly and with much pleasure. I had remembered it as being about small lives and mildly amusing anecdotes, but, in fact, the novel begins with several deaths, and it includes financial disaster and a runaway boy and considerable quotidian cruelty among the classes, particularly from the indolent social leader of little Cranford, who visits her friends just to tell them NOT to return the visit as she will be having a titled guest! Even fluttery Miss Matty Jenkyns has a sad story of lost love. She meets her aged lover– and he dies. You have to keep in mind that death was more everyday in the mid 1800's than now– it was perfectly common for most of a family’s babies not to survive infancy, and Mrs. Gaskell herself, who was considered to have had a long and fruitful life, died in her mid-fifties. The very ordinariness of loss of all kinds– loss of life, loss of lovers, loss of financial stability– underlies the gentle nattering of the ladies of Cranford. I love the book, but you have to be in the right mood to read it– is a sea-green turban appropriate headgear for an aging spinster? Get in the mood where that might matter to a character, though, and you are as lost in this world as in many a more obviously exotic one.

Two more books: THE GIFT by Lewis Hyde had been recommended to me several times. It is one of those often mentioned books by a public intellectual that I wanted to enjoy more than I did. It was hard going for me. Too much t.v. and internet? It does, however, make a really important distinction between what we do for money and what we don’t. It begins with folk tales and narratives about hunter gatherer and other societies with strong emphasis on gift exchange and the circulation of valuable things rather than private ownership, and goes on to long essays on Walt Whitman and Ezra Pounds and Allen Ginsberg.

Finally, I read Alice Sebold’s memoir, LUCKY, which is searing and feels very real and true. Sebold here investigates and documents her own rape and the struggle to bring the rapist to justice. Then she summarizes the real damage done to her– years of drinking and drugs and suffering. As good as this kind of book can be.

-- Meredith Sue Willis

Response to Issue # 119

Ardian Gill writes, “I enjoyed your review of the History of the Jews, etc. [in Issue # 119] Coincidentally, I just finished a small novel by a camp survivor named, appropriately, Wander. (He was in 20 camps). It's called THE SEVENTH WELL, a reference to something in the Hebrew Bible, I think. It's fiction but reads like a diary. Not an easy read a/c the German indifference and worse, but it's rewarding in that humor survives even the worst ordeals. Wander isn't just telling of life in the camps but gives brief biographies of some prisoners, and that's where the humor comes in along with the strength of the human spirit under the most brutal circumstances.”
Jeffrey Sokolow writes: “Thanks for the shout out. I'd forgotten how dated [Cecil] Roth was but I think it's still a good read. You might want to locate out-of-print books of his such as THE MARRANOS and A HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF ITALY. The late great Columbia historian Salo W. Baron objected to what he called "the lachymorose concept of history" (i.e., the history of the Jews being one primarily of suffering). His 18-volume SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF THE JEWS goes up to the 18th century. He was writing into his 90s but didn't make it past the 18th century. Another massive read is S.D. Gotein's 5-volume A MEDITERRANEAN SOCIETY, which paints a picture of medieval Arabic Jewish social and economic life based on documents from the Cairo Geniza (a repository for Hebrew manuscript fragments). On women, Judith Baskin is a historian whose work is aimed at bringing out the female side of Jewish history. I also understand that the newly revised ENCYCLOPEDIA JUDAICA includes many articles based on the last few decades of research into Jewish women's history and cultural criticism. Baskin's books would be a good place to start. Happy reading.”


Sal Weir says, “I just finished a book that I have recommended to others: ASSISTED LOVING by Bob Morris, a past contributor to the Styles section of the NEW YORK TIMES. Morris attends to his 80-year-old father, lives his own disordered life, and longs for love. Mere months after the death of his wife, Joe Morris is busy dating, looking for the right woman to share the rest of his life. A fanatical bridge player, a high-octane talker, Joe has a full social life. In turn, Bob wrestles with his feelings for his father's dating life, for his father, and for his dead mother. In turns hilariously funny, poignant and reflective, the book is a gem. Well written, fast paced, it feels real and is a rewarding read.”
Nicole Arbuiso suggests, for those interested in dipping their toes into chick lit, Emily Griffin’s SOMETHING BORROWED; SOMETHING BLUE; and BABY PROOF plus SHOPAHOLIC by Sophie Kinsella and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA by Lauren Weisberger.
Ed Davis reports that “Scott Giesel, an English prof at Wright State University (Dayton, OH), has compiled an anthology called GRAVITY FICTION: SHORT STORIES FOR COLLEGE WRITERS, consisting of 13 stories from ten different colleges, including Oberlin, University of New Orleans, Texas State as well as Sinclair Community College....Of course there are many such anthologies highlighting students in graduate programs, but this one highlights mostly undergraduate writing. Only a couple of the writers herein were in grad programs when they wrote their stories--and they're all excellent, accessible and compelling....In addition to the full text of the stories in a large, easily-readable font, Geisel wrote excellent introductions/analyses of each story. Furthermore, the book is quite affordable at @ $16.95, and is available at Amazon and It would make a great text for any college (maybe even high school) creative writing course, and, in fact, I'll probably use it in my advanced fiction next year. However, it's a great read, too, for anyone who likes great fiction and would like to see the sorts of issues and topics (mostly undergrad) writers in America are thinking about these days (for example, my student, Dennis Hitzeman's story ‘Never Enough’ is about a school shooting, but steers carefully around cliched shades of Columbine; the point of view character is the survivor of violence, a man who's now pledged, as a security officer, to end the violence). GRAVITY FICTION is a very worthy addition to the college fiction genre, and a labor of love for Scott Geisel.”


Nancy Gross teaches a course called “Literature & Medicine: A Community Dialogue,” at Overlook Hospital-Atlantic Health in New Jerseu as part of the Palliative Care and Ethics Program. Her reading list includes: Philip Roth EVERYMAN, Stephen Kiernan LAST RIGHTS, Thomas Lynch THE UNDERTAKING (essays), Donald Hall WITHOUT, John Bayley ELEGY FOR IRIS.
Thanks to Thulani Davis for a summer reading list on Black history and movements. She says, “I am just going to assume everyone has read the wonderful tomes PARTING THE WATERS and PILLAR OF FIRE by Taylor Branch. The first volume includes a lot of the kinds of experiences we southern black Columbia University students had before coming to New York and the incredible internacine struggles of organizing in small communities.” Here are her suggestions.
On Race:
Berger, Maurice. WHITE LIES: RACE AND THE MYTHS OF WHITENESS. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999. "It was in college that I learned to be a racist." P. 122
Malcomson, Scott L. ONE DROP OF BLOOD: THE AMERICAN MISADVENTURE OF RACE. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000.
Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. WHITE ON BLACK: IMAGES OF AFRICA AND BLACKS IN WESTERN POPULAR CULTURE. New Haven: Yale, 1992. [The only book of its kind.]
McClintock, Anne. IMPERIAL LEATHER: RACE, GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN THE COLONIAL CONTEXT. New York: Routledge, 1995. [Magisterial. A scholarly text but so eye-opening. "Colonial" as in British Empire, taking in Fanon and other post-colonial work, including pre-Mandela South Africa]
On the Southern Movement & Black Power movement:
Carson, Clayborne. IN STRUGGLE: SNCC AND THE BLACK AWAKENING OF THE 1960S." Cambridge: Harvard University: 1981.
King, Mary. FREEDOM SONG: A PERSONAL STORY OF THE 1960S MOVEMENT. New York: William Morrow,1987. [By a white member of SNCC....She was co-author with Casey Hayden of the memorandum charging SNCC leaders with sexism.]
Tyson, Timothy B. BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
[Recommended to me by every book seller I met in Mississippi as the best history of the state's bloody past, though it primarily opens up the story of a 1970 incident. This is by a white Mississippian, son of a white liberal, who has that great southern story-telling ability.]
Joseph, Peniel E. WAITING `TIL THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF BLACK POWER IN AMERICA. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. [He has no clue how chaotic things felt at the time and you will recognize that right off but he has most of the players you have never heard of down right—black power groups in places like Detroit. Unfortunately, he did not counter the NY Times coverage with black periodicals and thus he is repeating a lot of hysteria over Black Power that you may recognize as a source for your own but they got a lot of the reporting wrong. Still it's an overview.]
On 19th century radicals you should know (in my opinion):
Morgan, Albert T. YAZOO: OR, ON THE PICKET LINE OF FREEDOM IN THE SOUTH, A PERSONAL NARRATIVE. U of South Carolina, 2000. [Riveting autobiography of a true anti-racist radical of the late 19th c and his misadventures/education in Mississippi.]
Wells, Ida B. SOUTHERN HORRORS AND OTHER WRITINGS: THE ANTI-LYNCHING CAMPAIGN OF IDA B. WELLS, 1892-1900. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1997. [Just in case some of you have never read her.]
On Obama:
Asim, Jabari. WHAT OBAMA MEANS . . . FOR OUR CULTURE, OUR POLITICS, OUR FUTURE. New York: William Morrow, 2009. [For a thorough look at mainstream black views of Obama, including the old-heads from the black nationalist movements, and a good reading of black views on racialized nonsense that came up during the campaign.]


Podcast with Cat Pleska at
Neva Bryan’s website has a lot of good links to Appalachian websites as well as information about her new book.
Laura Thompson invites us to visit her updated Web site ( and her new blog about culture, travel and the arts ( She welcomes comments!
May issue of Internet Review of Books at
If you haven’t, check out Ron Pramschufer’s cheerfully commercial site about self-publishing:
Gently Read Literature’s May 2009 Issue 14 is available at
with Critical Reviews of Contemporary Poetry and Literary Fiction— Mary Ackers on Ron Rash’s SERENA, Stephen Delbos on Peter Ludwin’s A GUEST IN ALL YOUR HOUSES; Anne Whitehouse on RED MOUNTAIN , BIRMINGHAM , ALABAMA , Rick Larios on Andrea Barrett’s THE AIR WE BREATHE, and more.


Dissident Books is a new press worth looking into: It has, among other things, a new edition of H.L. Mencken’s NOTES ON DEMOCRACY. Dissident Books says of its mission: “In an intellectual landscape that’s largely homogenous and spineless, Dissident Books offers independent visions and accounts to those who have grown tired of adult lullabies. Our books are for readers who have both the stomach and the desire for the undiluted, no matter how strange, ugly, or sad it might be.”
FATHER, poems by Jeff Daniel Marion not only serves as a tribute to Marion’s father, but to fathers everywhere. From Wind Publications, 600 Overbrook Drive, Nicholasville KY 40356.
SAID AND DONE by James Morrison (Black Lawrence Press, June 2009) is now available for pre-order on the Black Lawrence Press website and on Amazon. In these nine stories, James Morrison writes about the intricate relation between tenderness and cruelty, about the burdens and freedoms of selfhood, the vagaries of identity, and the connections and disconnections among people across a wide range of human experience.

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