The Book Thief : Thoughts

bookthief

World War II is a very interesting subject for me, living in Britain this is a subject which I have heard about, read about and spoken about for as long as I can remember.  I have visited museums, read books and written essays about World War II, about the brave men who fought for our independence, the ones who returned and the ones who did not.  We have celebrated the anniversary of VE Day by way of street parties and barbecues all of my life.  My Nan, my paternal grandmother, who was just a young girl at the time, has told me of her experiences living in the City of Liverpool at the time war broke out, about buildings exploding in her neighbourhood and the competitions she would have with her friends to see who would be first to find the shell.  She has spoken fondly of her memories of being a young evacuee in the Welsh countryside and about the people she met and the wonderful experiences she had.  I have learned about the struggles on The Home Front, the women bringing up the babies and looking after the home, driving buses and ambulances, building weapons and ammunition in our factories whilst desperately waiting to hear news of their sweetheart.

Every November 11th I proudly place my money in the tins that line the checkout of every supermarket and street corner and I pin a blood red poppy to my lapel.  At 11am this day, the nation falls silent.  So silent you could hear a pin drop.  Everybody, whether or old or young takes two minutes to reflect on the events of all those years ago.  Young children who catch a glimpse of their friends, eyes twinkling with nervous laughter and feel the corners of their own mouths twitching as they desperately try to stifle the bubble of inappropriate laughter threatening to escape too young and innocent yet to truly understand what this moment stands for.  Old men, with weathered faces and hands, hands that worked hard and eyes that have known love, laughter and tragedy, silent tears streaking down their ragged faces as they remember their experiences, their comrades who made it home and those who will remain forever young on the battlefields of war.  These men are like my Grandfather, a man whose experiences from 1939 to 1945 were so harrowing that, although the pain and memories were etched all over his face, he never spoke of them for the rest of his life.

But what about that one forbidden question?  The one our history teacher would rebuke and would refuse to enter into discussion about.  What of the enemy, the Germans?  By this I don’t mean Hitler and his Nazis, we all know what happened to them.  I mean the the regular working class Germans, and their children, living under Hitlers regime.  Innocent victims of the Nazis, other than those who died in the concentration camps.

I studied a poem many years ago when I was working towards my GCSE in English, it was about an English lady working away in her kitchen one peaceful afternoon listening to the merry chirp of birdsong, the sounds of war seeming a million miles away, when she hears an almighty crash coming from the woods behind her home.  She throws down her apron and takes off to investigate.  What she comes across is an enemy plane lying wrecked among the bluebells, with the Swastika glaring out at her from among the wreckage she turns to walk away when a hand reaches out to grab hers.  She looks into the eyes of the soldier who is no older than her own son, as the life ebbs away from him he takes a ragged breath and clings to her hand as he whispers “Muta”, the German word for mother.  I remember clearly, the tears pooling in my eyes as I thought about that young man, dying scared and alone in a strange country, fighting for a cause he most likely never believed in in the first place.  What was it about him that was really any different from our own young men, dying scared and alone all over the world?  Now, I could talk about this forever the brutalities of war, the politics, the rights, wrongs, ins and outs but this not a history paper or a political discussion and I am not the kind of person who looks at things like that anyway.  I like to think of people, of how intrinsically we are all the same.  I wish I could remember the name of that poem, such was the profound effect it had on me at that time.

Marketed as Children’s Fiction”, The Book Thief is much more than that.  This is a clever book.  An important book.  The subject matter is one I have been interested in for a long time; the Nazification of Germany.  I believe that as human beings, to truly understand our history and more importantly, to learn from it, we need to hear both sides of the story and sometimes, a fictional interpretation is exactly what we need to gain a true understanding of historical events and the human emotion surrounding those events.

The Book Thief is not a gory story about the atrocities of war, quite the contrary.  It is a story that follows the day to day lives of the inhabitants of a small German town from a time when war seems to be a million miles away until the very moment it arrives, unannounced and deeply unwelcome, to their front doors.  Narrated by Death, we follow the story of Liesel, a young girl who has been placed with foster parents in Munich following the death of her younger brother.  Throughout the course of the story we are introduced to a myriad of characters, including Liesels foster family The Hubermanns.  Mr. Hubermann is a wonderful character, a man of great strength and unwavering kindness who displays the kind of bravery and integrity that most of us could only ever dream of possessing.  His wife Rosa, we come to learn is much softer than she first appears.  For me, the character I most fell in love with was Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s friend.  We first meet Rudy as an impetuous young boy, painting his face black and taking off around the local running track pretending to be Jesse Owens, when his father drags him home and warns him not to pretend to be black or Jewish because of the Nazis.  It is made clear to us that whilst Mr. Steiner is a member of the Nazi Party, he is not a racist, just a man who is prepared to do anything in order to protect and provide for his family.  Throughout the novel we see Rudy’s character grow up and become more hardened toward the cold realities of death and war.

However, it is with the introduction of Max Vanderburg, a 23 year old Jew who takes shelter from the Nazis in the Hubermann’s basement, that we witness some truly harrowing scenes.  As we see the friendship between Max and Liesel grow, Max is forced to leave the safety of the Hubermann’s basement and is later seen by Liesel among a procession of Jews being marched to Dachau Concentration Camp.  What the author achieves is to give us a gut wrenching empathy for these characters, struggling with the dilemma as to whether they should help the Jews, as they know they should, or to turn their backs in order to protect themselves and their children from the wrath of the Nazis.  We witness also, the reluctance of the Jewish characters to accept help from their friends and neighbours for a fear of endangering their lives.  Mr. Hubermann, witnessing a procession of malnourished Jews, throws them a scrap of bread, as a Jewish prisoner falls at Mr. Hubermann’s feet crying and thanking him, he and Mr. Hubermann are whipped by the soldiers.  We witness the heartbreaking account of a mother, woken in the middle of the night by the Nazis banging down her front door in order to recruit her young son and finding herself powerless to stop them.

The novel plods along at something of a meandering pace at first, much like the lives of its characters at a time when you they would have been hard pressed to believe that there was a raging battle taking place not far from your own, comfortable little world.  Until, with the arrival of Max and the Nazis on their front doorsteps, we begin to understand a little about the people struggling through the Nazi regime and striving to hold their lives together.

“Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?”

Whilst all of the characters we meet are citizens of a nation in the process of killing millions of innocent people, Death and the readers alike, wonder just how culpable our characters are for the ongoing Holocaust when some, like Hans and Rosa, have quietly defied Hitler by protecting a Jew, and others, only children who could not possibly be held responsible for crimes planned by Hitler, before they were even born.

Marcus Zusak was born to an Austrian father and a German mother, and as such grew up hearing stories of wartime Munich and Vienna and it was these stories that inspired him to write The Book Thief.  His writing is fluid and his characters strong and likable and what results is a book which made me cry, ponder and debate with myself.  This is an eloquently written novel which tells of how our lives can alter in merely the blink of an eye.  This is a portrait of resilience, of hope and of the strength of the human spirit and I would implore you to read it.

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Keep Calm and Quote

A good book is a successful recipe composed of many ingredients; likable characters, a gripping story line, beautiful prose, but often what really makes a book stand out for me are its quotes.  Some can be as short as just a few words, some can be paragraphs long but those few simple words can be funny, touching or wise and can remain with us for a lifetime.  A good quote has the ability to guide and inspire, convey our emotions or pick us up when we are feeling down.  A good quote will transcend distance and time, will unite people whatever their wealth, nationality or social class and will become our words when we are not able to find our own.

My favourite quotes will have me going back to a book time and time again, just to look at them and remember what they  have taught me.  Below are some of my favourite quotes, please feel free to share yours in the comments section so they can inspire others.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”  (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird)

There are so many wonderful quotes in this novel by Harper Lee that I hardly know where to start, I have selected this one as an example as it is a lesson of which I try and remind myself and adhere to.  Lawyer, Attius Finch departs this piece of wisdom to his six year old daughter Scout.  Atticus is explaining to his daughter how we should never judge people from the outside looking in, how we don’t know how another person feels and cannot understand their actions until we have looked at everything from their point of view and reminds us to live with sympathy and understanding for others.  This quote exemplifies the beautiful relationship between Scout and her father, Scout learns more from her father than she does from any other character in this book and so did I, he is able to explain complex matters in a way that a child will understand.  Atticus Finch is one of my favourite literary characters, he is a moral guide to whom we should all aspire to learn from.  Atticus is a character of great integrity who is not afraid of speaking honestly to his children and most importantly, he practices what he preaches.  This is a beautiful passage, one that I have reminded myself of many times in my dealings with all kinds of people on a personal and a professional level.

“One time, when I was very little, I climbed a tree and ate these green, sour apples. My stomach swelled and became hard like a drum, it hurt a lot. Mother said that if I’d just waited for the apples to ripen, I wouldn’t have become sick. So now, whenever I really want something, I try to remember what she said about the apples.” (Khalid Hosseini, The Kite Runner)

Amir is explaining to Sohrab that their move to America may take some time and that it is like “sour apples”.  Patience is a virtue, if we wait, good things will come.  I have always believed that we should never rush into things in life and that the longer we wait for something, the sweeter it is when we get it.

“Eyes are blind, you have to look with the heart” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)

The Little Prince was one of the first books I owned, it was a beautiful hardback edition of which I was very proud, I still have it and very much look forward to introducing it to my son.  Like all good parables, this book can be enjoyed on many different levels.  Young children will love it as essentially it is a silly, entertaining story but as the reader matures the story becomes much deeper – it is about finding something, losing it and letting go.  It reminds us to never lose sight of what is really important in life.  This particular quote reminds me of a lesson of which I already know but often forget, that which is essential is invisible to the eye.  The things that make a person special cannot be seen merely by the eyes, when you love something or someone that person may appear ordinary to the rest of the world but you know in your heart what it is that makes them special to you.

“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.

A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”   (Roald Dahl, The Twits)

This quote is quite possibly my absolute favourite of all time.  Roald Dahl has such a special and unique way of engaging with his readers, young and old alike.  This book is hilariously entertaining. The Twits are horrible, dirty, nasty characters who enjoy torturing animals and children until eventually the animals strike back and exact their revenge.  Mr and Mrs Twit are ugly because of their thoughts, explains the narrator, and they become more and more hideous by the day because of their bad thoughts and behaviour.  About the importance of inner beauty, this particular quote is self-explanatory and is an important life lesson. Be happy and kind and think only good thoughts and that happiness will show on your face.

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Can I have a Top 6?

Yesterday, as an introductory post I presented a list and some brief reviews of my Top 5 all-time favourite books.  Since then, I have been suffering from an attack of conscience with regards to my number 5 choice.  My Top 5 books have been cemented for some time, the top 3 for over a decade and it would take quite some special book to replace any of them!  However, at the end of 2012 I came across one such book.  A book which thrilled and engaged me to such an extent that it has taken up a permanent residence in my subconscious mind, honestly I have even dreamed about it!  That book is “The Girl You Left Behind” by Jojo Moyes.

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Now you may have figured out by this point that not only do I love reading but equally, I am obsessed with history.  They are my two most favourite things in the whole world and when they come together it makes me very happy!  The Girl You Left Behind is the gripping story of Sophie Lefevre and her family living in German occupied France during World War One.  Sophie’s husband Edouard is an artist, and before he left for war he painted a portrait of Sophie and presented it to her as a gift, he called that painting “The Girl I Left Behind”.  Sophie is busy running her family inn, Le Coq Rouge when one day enters a German Kommandent who insists that Sophie and her sister begin cooking for him and his men.  Sophie, needless to say is horrified but feels as though she has little choice, so she welcomes the German enemy into her home night after night.  Before long it becomes clear that not only has the Kommandent become fascinated by the portrait but by the woman in it.  Sophie begins to wonder can she use the mans fascination with her to extract information about the whereabouts of her beloved husband?  Needless to say, this dangerous game leads to no end of trouble for Sophie and her family.

The action switches midway through the book to present day London.  Liv Halston has lost her young husband David, before his death David presented his wife with a gift.  A portrait of an unknown woman.  The portrait now hangs on Liv’s wall, a reminder of her husband and of their honeymoon.  Sadly for Liv, the artists family have been trying to retrieve the portrait and have enlisted the help of an agency which tracks down paintings looted by the Germans during wartime.  A grieving Liv is stubbornly determined to hang onto the painting, one may wonder why when she discovers the tragic history of the painting, would she be so desperate to hang onto it but it soon becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and not everybody’s intentions are as honorable as they would have you believe.

I often find “dual time” stories can be confusing and difficult to follow but I believe that Jojo Moyes has really nailed this genre.  I will be honest and say that I definitely enjoyed the first part of the book more than the second, so much so that I was literally bereft when I turned over the page and realised that Sophie’s story had come to an end.  The author really captures the hardships, the struggles and the desperation felt by Sophie, her sister Helene and the rest of the sad, starving villagers who are buckling under the pressure of German command.  The world she has created is so vivid that having been so engrossed in it, I would look up from the book and actually find myself surprised to be sitting in my own living room and not in the bar of Le Coq Rouge.  I could almost hear the conversation, smell the food and feel the fear and desperation hanging in the air.  I could quite happily have read an entire novel based around Sophie and was so disappointed when her story came to an end that I almost didn’t continue to read, almost!  It was only that I was so desperate to find out what became of Sophie and Edouard that I carried on turning those pages and boy am I glad I did.  I soon found myself as immersed in Liv’s story as I was in Sophie’s.

Without giving anything of the story away there are many comparisons to be drawn between Sophie and Liv and their stories, not least the loss of the loves of their lives and their strength and resilience when life pushes them to and beyond their limits.  Having forced this book on many of my friends, none of whom have regretted it, I have largely found myself alone in my sympathy toward the Kommandent but I was left feeling as though he genuinely loved Sophie.  I think his character showed how even the most evil of enemies is just a person underneath, and how even the most gentle of souls can be twisted and destroyed by the evil of war.

This is a story that progresses at a rocketing pace, which tugs at your emotions and will have you hooked from the very first page.  It is tense, dramatic, heartbreaking and poignant.  I highly recommend this book to anybody, however I would advise that you only pick it up if you know that you have at least one clear day in front of you as you will not be able to put it down until you have finished.

Walking Disaster by Jamie McGuire – Review!!!

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Let me start by saying that I did enjoy reading this book. It was nicely written, flowed well and it was certainly not a struggle to reach the end. However, I did feel as though for the most part it was a rewrite of Beautiful Disaster and nothing more. I didn’t feel as though I learned anything about Travis that I did not know before, or the other characters for that matter. I really enjoyed the prologue showing Travis as a young child at the bedside of his dying mother and must admit to having the glisten of a tear in my eye! For me, this small section of the book showed what the author is capable of and it was a shame that it did not carry on in this vein. Given that the author justifies the flaws in her leading mans character with the death of his mother at such a young age I felt as though she could have had a much bigger voice in this version of the novel. It seemed as though she was used as a justification for Travis’ behaviour and then quickly forgotten about. I would also like to have seen the author explore more of the relationship between Travis and his elder brothers.

Although I didn’t struggle too much to enjoy this book I did find my myself a little bored as having read BD I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end of every scene, scenes that we have already become familiar with in the previous novel. Perhaps the author could have written some brand new “unseen” interactions between Travis and Abby rather than relying on the retelling of scenes and situations from BD. The novel does however redeem itself somewhat during the epilogue, this was the first time during the story when I felt myself wanting to turn the page to find out what would happen next.

Given the phenomenal success of Beautiful Disaster and the hysteria surrounding Travis Maddox as a literary hero (or a book boyfriend as I have recently heard him referred to as) I am not surprised that the author, or more likely her publishers would want to capitalise on this and make as much money as they can, which is fair enough! Nobody forced me to purchase it! Unfortunately, I do feel as though Ms. Maguire would have done herself much more justice as a writer by creating some brand new material. Perhaps she could have written fresh material telling us what happened in the 11 years that we missed between the end of BD and the epilogue of WD? I’m not sure whether there will be another book in this series at this point however there do still seem to be some loose ends, for example does Travis succeed in bringing down Mick Abernathy? I would also have loved to see more interaction between Travis and his children. How did Travis react to becoming a father? Given how damaged his character is, did he feel worthy of his kids? Was he worried about his abilities as a parent having not had his mother around? Was he scared and vulnerable as he was when he first fell in love with Abby? Or did he take it immediately in his stride? I do feel as though there is a lot more that could have been explored here and that simply writing the retelling of the novel might have been something of a cop out (sorry!!)

I very much enjoyed the relationship between Shepley and America. For me, they are much more real as a couple than Travis and Abby and I have to admit that I hugely preferred the character of America to that of Abby. She is strong and fiesty and takes no messing around. Unlike Abby, who I felt was needy, whingey and too much of a game player. For example, when she told Travis that she would have taken him back at Thanksgiving had he said the right things to her. Instead she made him suffer even when he begged on his hand knees outside the cafeteria for her to take him back, and continued to mope around herself instead of being honest. Although admittedly had she been immediately honest the book would have been a lot shorter! Abby is one minute insisting that she can’t be with Travis even though she loves him but in the next breath she is falling into bed with him and declaring her undying love! I just couldn’t figure her out! The notion of “I love you but I can’t be with you because (insert stupid reason here) always falls a little bit flat for me because in my experience if you love somebody there is no reason good enough to not want to be with them, right? You accept somebody flaws and all. Abby and Travis’ relationship seems to be based on a distinct lack of honesty and a lot of game playing (it started with a bet remember) which is why I feel that perhaps theirs is a relationship based on little more than sexual attraction rather than being a deep and sustainable love that will last a life time. To me, the real love story here is between Shepley and America and I would have dearly loved to see their story wrapped up in the epilogue also. We don’t even know if they are still together, whether they married and had children. Perhaps we will be hearing more from them in the future.

I felt Travis is a passionate, fiery and fiercely loving character who needed taking care of not messing around and I honestly didn’t think Abby was good enough for him!! She would have been better off with somebody as simpery and annoying as she, like Parker Hayes. Now Travis and America, they would make an incredible and passionate couple!!! Overall, I didn’t hate this book but I certainly did not enjoy it as much as the original. I will however, look out for Ms. Maguires next project.