Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Poison Spreads-The Book Thief

Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II.  And that is about all I know-neither of my grandfathers would talk about that time.  Perhaps that's why stories about World War II had always held a fascination for me.  In my teens, I read all of James Michener's books about his time in Japan.  I also discovered books like When Hitler Stole Pink RabbitNumber the Stars, and of course The Diary of Anne Frank.  I've watched countless documentaries and movies about the Holocaust.  And when I think about World War II, the images I have in my mind are of concentration camps and ovens.  But now I have a new vision to add to my understanding of the madness that was Hilter's Germany.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak takes place during World War II, and tells the story of 10 year old Liesel.  Her mother is forced to place her children into foster care.  Liesel's brother dies on the train taking her to Munich, where she is given into the care of a couple on Himmler Street.  Through the tough love of her foster mother, and the sweet compassion of her foster father, she finds a way to cope with not only her brothers death but the quickly declining standard of living in Germany.  Things go along OK, until the dark night that a Jew shows up at their door looking for sanctuary.

Despite the tragedy and the devastation contained within the story, when I think of a word to describe this book I can only say beautiful.  This book is so heartbreakingly beautiful, I could almost weep just from the use of language.  But the story is so compelling that even if it weren't written so beautifully I would have had a hard time putting it down.  So often books about World War II focus solely on the fate of the Jews-and rightfully so.  There is nothing so important as ensuring that the world never experiences that level of genocide-or any genocide-again.  But the fact is that most of the German people were suffering as well, and this book shows so clearly how the poison of hatred and fear spreads, and how it takes an incredible strength not to give in to the despair.  Despite the constant threat of being found out, of starvation, of being killed by bombs, Liesel and her parents held on to their humanity and compassion.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Under the Heading of Places I Wish Were Real

Sometimes I read a book that has such a strong sense of place that I feel literally transported there.  Sometimes this is a bad thing, like in Elie Weisel's Night Or A Thousand Splendid Sun's Afghanistan.  But sometimes it is a wondrous feeling, especially when the place in question is full of magic.  This is how I felt when I read the Narnia books for the first time, and frankly I'd still like to visit Caer Paravel and hang out with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.  Erin Morgenstern, in her debut novel The Night Circus, creates just such a magical place in Le Cirque du Reves, the setting for her imaginary game of one-upsmanship between two talented illusionists.

Celia and Marco are just children when their training begins.  Their teachers, Celia's father Prospero and Marco's guardian Alexander, are old rivals who have, over the years, challenged each other to a game.  The "game" involved pitting their pupils against each other in a challenge like no other.  Their task is to manipulate the physical world as a test of their skills, and their playing field is a circus-a magical circus that is only open at night. But things do not go as the old masters planned when Celia and Marcos stop seeing each other as adversaries and start seeing each other as something else entirely.

Le Cirque du Reves as imagined by Morganstern is a place full of amazing people doing amazing things.  There are the usual acts of contortionist and fortune teller, but there are also tents full of things that defy reality-a garden made exquisitely out of ice, a cloud maze that allows you to literally climb into the heavens, a wishing tree where wishes really come true.  Even if the book was nothing but a long description of the marvelous things at the circus I would have read it and been happy.  But there was also this really intriguing, mysterious story going on that had my interest piqued.  While I did not get all of the answers that I was hoping for about exactly what was going on, the fact that I am still thinking about the story and what it might have meant shows what an affect it had on my imagination.

I don't usually read other reviews of a book before I write my own, but I was curious about how other people were affected by the story.  I was not surprised to find that the New York Review of Books was not exactly over the moon about this book-I imagine if does not meet their rather high-falutin' definition of literary.  But the other reviewers I read all felt similarly to me.  For a first novel, this book does a pretty good job with evoking mood and setting up a solid plot structure.  Character development is oddly lacking, given the rich possibilities for the creation of a mythology to explain the enchanters and their pupils.  But unlike some of the other reviewers, I actually saw the circus itself as a character, or at least an extension of Marco and Celia.  I felt like a learned a lot about them through the kinds of creations they made for their customers.  I know that some readers may be put off by the non-linear narrative, but I didn't find it distracting at all, since each section is clearly marked, and there is no real jumping back and forth within sections, only between them.  One reviewer I read felt that the ending set up a sequel, but I'm not sure about that.  While the fate of the circus seemed rather open-ended, I was OK with it.  I like imagining the circus, traveling the world, appearing and disappearing like magic, delighting everyone who is lucky enough to discover it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What is it About Islands?

I have always wanted to live in an island.  Maybe it's longing for the sea while living in the middle of the country, or wanting to be set apart from the rest of the world, but I have often thought with longing about a small house overlooking the sea, reached only by boat.  I've always thought Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard (I am a New England girl by temperament if not by birth), but after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer, I think that the Channel Islands might be a good choice as well.

The novel is told through letters and telegrams between Juliet Ashton and various residents of the island of Guernsey in the months after the end of World War II.  The Channel Islands were occupied by Germany during the war, and the residents were completely cut off from the rest of England.  For five years they had no news about what was happening in the rest of the world-no newspapers, no radios, no letters from family or from their children, who they sent to the mainland before the invasion.  One night, after dining on a forbidden pig with friends, a group of islanders was caught out after curfew.  On the spot, one brave young woman, Elizabeth, created a fictional literary society to explain why they were out together.  In order to put the truth to their lie, the small group of friends created an actual book club, and their meetings allowed many of the members to keep their sanity in the midst of war.  Years later, one of the members contacts Juliet Ashton, a journalist and author, to say how much he enjoyed a book that once belonged to her that he found in a used book shop.  Their correspondence leads Juliet to the island, and to a story both tragic and triumphant of love and friendship in a time of war.

I started out thinking that I was not going to love this book.  I am not that fond of epistolary novels, and the last one I read (check out my not-so glowing review of Between Friends) was so bad that I almost put this book back down once I'd picked it up.  But after resisting the pull of the story for 50 pages or so, I was drawn completely into the lives of the characters.  Juliet reminded me of a character from a period mystery I read recently (this time a glowing review of A Duty to the Dead)-a spunky, scrappy, snarky, but ultimately kind and loving young woman.  And I think that the reason that this worked where Between Friends did not is because each of the letter writers had such a distinctive voice.  Despite everything being told second hand, the novel felt very intimate and personal, and I felt like the character development was pretty good.  But what really made the novel work for me was the historical events it was based on.

I knew that the Channel Islands were occupied during WWII, and I already had some vague idea about their relation to France and England politically (which is to say, they "belong" to England but have their own government, a bit like Puerto Rico, I suppose).  But this novel filled in some details in my admittedly sketchy picture of that period in British history.  And like any good historical novel, it led me to do some more reading and research on the topic.  Rather than using lots of long exposition to provide background, the stories of the islanders comes out in dribs and drabs over the course of Juliet's relationship with them, and the novel feels light and easy to read, while at the same time having some substance-not an easy balance to maintain, but one that Burrows and Shaffer pull off rather well.