Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book #32: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Remember last time, when I told you the books that left me feeling like one giant ball of sadness, almost drowning in dramatic sobs and tears? This was one of them. In fact, I don't think I have ever cried this hard at a book of fiction before. Just thinking about it makes me feel like crying. I don't think I'd ever read a book more beautiful, unique and heartbreaking.

The most fascinating thing about the book, and what helps make it so unique and powerful is that it's narrated by Death. He (or It, I think) is an omniscent observer, who has decided to tell us the heartbreaking story of a young girl named Liesel, who lives in Germany during World War 2. After losing her mother and brother, she is adopted by two Germans, Hans and Rosa Bubermann . Her adoptive father is quiet but strong, her mother rough around the edges, but it's clear that they love each other, and Liesel, very much.

One night the local Nazis stage a book burning, and Liesel, fascinated and confused, sneaks in and steals one of the books about to be burned. It becomes her greatest treasure, and she becomes The Book Thief. A while later a knock comes in the middle of the night and Liesel must share in another secret: a runaway Jew named Max has come to ask the Hubermanns for a hiding place, and they take him in despite the great danger he represents for them

We see the events of the war unfold around the family, slowly and distantly at first, but becoming more and more real as the war progresses, right to their front door during the Allies' bombing of Germany. They're affected right from the start, when Liesel's father tries to join the Nazi party to protect his family, and when Liesel's best friend Rudy joins the Nazi Youth. It's a different, harrowing perspective and I was grateful for it.

The voice of Death is Zusak's greatest accomplishment in this book. Death is detached, seemingly emotionless at times, but there is a great, eternal sadness to the character. The writing is simple but incredibly beautiful and at times almost poetic.Every now and then a simple phrase would just break my heart.

I can't even find the proper words to describe how much this book moved me, and I'm afraid that the review isn't doing it justice. Even now I still feel the power of the story, and it's been a while since I read it. Almost as soon as I was done (after I finished sobbing my heart out, that is) I wanted to read it all over again. It's by far one of the best books I have ever read, and one that I'll recommend to everyone I know. I'll recommend they get a box of tissues to go with it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book #31: "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker

There are very few books that have made me cry. I can count them on one hand: The Time Traveler's Wife, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and The Book Thief. Now I have to add The Color Purple to the list, because this book slayed me.

This is the story of Celie and her sister, told through diary entries and letters to each other. Celie is a poor black girl who has always had a miserable life-- abused as a child, then married off to an abusive, violent husband after her father gets her pregnant and then gives away her children. Her sister, Nettie, moves in with them, but it doesn't last long- the husband tries to rape her and her sister must run away, so Celie loses the only thing in her life that she cares about. From then on she writes letters to her sister, detailing her miserable, lonely life, not even knowing whether her sister is alive or not.

Celie is an incredibly powerful narrator. She doesn't wallow in her sadness, but tells her story in a sadly detached way, detailing the miseries of her life while also hoping that there is something in the future for her. Her life slowly begins to change, once her husband's lover, Shug Avery, comes into her life. Shug is her complete opposite--powerful, independent, a force of nature who doesn't take shit from anyone and reduces Mister to nothing. At first Celie resents her, but slowly they become friends (and lovers) and Celie finally begins to love herself, and thus begins to shine.

It's this aspect of the book that got me. Celie starts out as miserable a character as I've ever read, but her transformation into her own person is incredibly touching and powerful. This is a book about women overcoming obstacles by relying on themselves and other women. There's an impressive cast of female characters, all vastly different but united in their shared desire to become more than their situations allow them to be.

I loved this book. Celie's voice is so strong and the story is touching and memorable. I was crying, both from sharing Celie's heartbreak, but also because of how much she manages to overcome and change. Read this. It's hard, and sometimes brutal to read sometimes, but it's also an incredibly good read.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book #30: "Little Children" by Tom Perotta

The first thing to know about this book is that the title refers not to actual children, but to full-grown people who act in ways that make them no better than children. Greedy, selfish, pouting children. This is a book about rich suburbanites who are profoundly unhappy, and the sometimes stupid things they do to try and change this. It's stark and unforgiving, but also sympathetic. And one hell of a read.

The book deals with a group of people living in a perfectly suburban, affluent neighborhood. The families live the American dream: nice houses, nice children, nice jobs. But they're all wildly unhappy. They all seem to think they have something more coming to them, that they need to be more perfect, or richer, that they don't deserve their problems and why should they have it so hard? In short, they're more child-like than their actual children. They want what they want and will throw a tantrum (or rather, have affairs) when they don't get their way. Like spoiled children, they think they deserve what they want, for no real reason other than they want it.

Though this sounds wildly unpleasant, the characters are sometimes strangely sympathetic. The story focuses mainly on four or five characters and their children: There's Sarah, a sad former-feminist who doesn't seem to quite understand how she ended up a housewife with a daughter she doesn't understand and a husband, Richard, whom she doesn't love. She falls into an affair with Todd, a handsome stay-at-home dad who is married to Kathy, a beautiful professional woman. Sarah and Todd are the more childlike of the group, so dissatisfied with their lives that they try having an affair seemingly just to have something exciting to do. They're surrounded by all the usual people of a small suburban neighborhood--the over-protective soccer moms, the guys who love football, everyone with their little stories and secret miseries. The story of the new neighbor, who happens to be a convicted sexual offender, is particularly affecting.

Reading this book I was equally annoyed and saddened by the characters. They're sometimes infuriating in their childish, selfish ways, but you also get the feeling that there's probably a lot of people out there who feel the same way they do. So the characters all feel very realistic, in a way that feels a little uncomfortable to read sometimes. Perotta doesn't hold back his punches, telling the story in an almost detached, clinical way that just gets to you.

It's not an easy book to read, and the characters might put you off entirely, but it's definitely not a book I'll forget anytime soon. Some scenes just stick with you, and I know I'll look out for more of Perotta's work.