Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers #120
June 11, 2009
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THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak
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
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM MSW
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 http://www.markrudd.com/?about-mark-rudd/why-were-there-so-many-jews-in-sds-or-the-ordeal-of-civility.html ). 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 http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/20090507_tom_hayden_on_mark_rudd/ .
.....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.
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.”