Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Girl in the Green Sweater
by Krystyna Chiger

Genre: Memoir
Publisher, Year: Macmillan, 2009
Flags: Adult themes
Rating: A, or Great Read
Challenge:
Premise:  Kystyna Chiger was just a child when Nazi Germany occupied her home town. Through the courage of her parents, she and her family find a way to evade capture and endure until the end of the war in the city’s sewers. An incredible survival story.

There are so many good books that deal with World War II, that describe the unspeakable cruelty and then bring to light the unimaginable courage and will to live in the face of that cruelty. And there is an endless amount of these stories. It can be difficult to be reminded of what a devastating a time it was. And it takes me off guard--every time--that such things occurred, that it actually happened, that there was a time and a place where people, millions of people . . . so many people . . . were subjected to such inhumanity, where only a fraction of those people actually survived. To think about the collection of stories that would exist if all of them could tell us of the struggle to their last moments, if they could speak beyond the grave.

It’s that thought that haunts me when I read a memoir. I’m sorry to say it, but this makes me a reluctant reader. Thank goodness for book club, or I might never have had the stomach to read this book. I’m so glad I did. This story is such a testament to the human spirit and to the bond of a family’s love. I was so moved and inspired by the Chiger family.

Krystyna was just your average little girl. She loved to play with her friends, to be outside, to spend time with her family. And when her little brother, Pawel, was born, the two became inseparable. But it wasn’t long before trouble began to brew. War was on the way, and after a difficult Russian occupation, Nazi Germany made things worse. Krystyna watched, from a child’s perspective, as the life her parents and grandparents had built was slowly pilfered away. They took everything. Soon it became apparent that living conditions would become increasingly worse, until they were all gone--until there were no Jews left. But Ignacy Chiger would not accept defeat, so when the final liquidation came, he was ready, and he took his family into the sewer, with others who fled, to find a way to outlast the war.

I think there are few of us who can really imagine the horrors that so many suffered. To read all of those fears dictated by a child--it was excruciating. I could only keep imagining my own daughter, and what it would have been like to have her childhood taken from her in such a vicious way, and I as her mother unable to do anything about it but try to protect her. One thing I feel I did not understand fully about the Holocaust before this book was exactly how the Nazis would capture Jews and kill them or send them away. Krystyna recalls the paralyzing fear of the “actions,” which was the word that described when the Nazis would show up, unannounced, and just pick up Jews, willy nilly. You either evaded through right place, right time or you could sometimes bribe your way out. For this reason, Krystyna rarely ever left her family’s living quarters, and often her father would actually hide her and her brother in a small space all day, just in case one of these actions commenced while he was away. She describes one rare moment when she was outside with her cousin, and when they heard the familiar commotion, they ran. Krystyna was fast enough; her cousin was not. Later, she looked out the window to see her grandmother and cousin together on the back of a truck, headed for who knows where. And she never saw them again. This is just one of many experiences from her story that have stayed with me.

Along with Krystyna, I felt that boundless helplessness, and yet, her family could not lose hope. They kept fighting for each other and for their lives. They resisted and resisted. And surprisingly, even after the war, they resisted some more. The emotional stamina that must claim is unfathomable to me. And I found myself thinking that if I had been in their position, I don’t know if I could have had the same strength.

It was the love they shared, the family and the friends they came to consider family, that sustained them in the long hours, the impossible conditions, the vermin, the hunger and sickness, the constant fear of discovery. And yet, they continued on, with incredible resilience. They always looked forward to the future, undaunted. Even though the conditions were beyond inhuman, they found ways to entertain each other with little plays, to engage in meaningful conversation, to try to learn new things, even while living in a nightmare.

As I came to the end of each chapter, I found myself wondering how it could possibly get worse, and yet it continued. Each harrowing tale followed after another, which made this story quite engrossing. And even though I knew from the outset that Krystyna and her family would survive whole, I still found myself unable to put the book down before I knew what had happened to her, so that I could imagine her, warm in a clean bed, surrounded by loved ones, freed from her sewer prison.

Krystyna Chiger’s story is one of the most memorable I have ever read and perhaps ever will. (Dare I say it?) This book fulfilled its purpose in that it illustrated the war and its terrible consequences. But I would also say this story affected me further than that. It spoke to me in a way that is hard to describe. I learned something about Krystyna, but I also learned something about myself.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Life of Pi

Just saw this trailer on the big screen before the new Bourne movie.
Must make time for this book before November!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Genre: Young adult thriller
Publisher, Year: HarperTeen, 2007
Other Works: A Pack of Lies
Flags: Adult themes, tenuous references
Rating: A-, or Good w/ Minor Problems
Challenge: Outdo Yourself, Library
Premise: A young girl, Sym, embarks on an adventure with her quirky uncle to the bottom of the world. For Sym, it is a perfect backdrop to her obsession, as she loves everything Antarctic, including her imaginary friend, Titus Oates, an early explorer who died in the pursuit of their shared hobby.

So, I have this problem with walking by the awards shelf in the YA section of my library and picking up something that looks interesting to read on the side. However, these books end up taking over my life! And I can’t concentrate on anything until I’ve finished them. After this one, I’ve got to take a break because it literally commandeered my every waking thought until it finally hurdled toward an agonizing finish. Finished it in a grand total of two days. Another Printz winner, and for good reason.

Sym is in love with her imaginary friend, Titus, an Antarctic explorer who bravely died in his quest. It hasn’t been an easy time for Sym; she faces family tragedy, partial deafness, and painful shyness that makes her feel as if she will never fit in. But when she reads her books about Antarctica and allows herself to dissolve into that world of cold discovery, she feels at home, with Titus by her side. After the untimely death of her father, a family friend, Victor, steps in, a man she calls “uncle,” though they are unrelated. He’s the father figure she yearns for, and though a bit strange, she trusts him entirely. So, when he offers to take her to Paris for the weekend, Sym jumps at the chance. She could never have known that a simple weekend holiday would turn into an adventure gone horrifically wrong.

This book is packed with one nail-biting incident after another. I could hardly turn the pages fast enough. I was interested to see how the author would bring Sym’s imaginary boyfriend to life in a believable way, and I was not disappointed in that respect. Titus was arguably the most intriguing character, the way he popped up just when Sym needed him the most, with a sarcastic remark, a telling eye roll, or a shoulder to lean on. He was a perfect window into Sym’s soul--we got insight into exactly how Sym is feeling through this “inner” dialogue. Sym herself was also an interesting character, if flawed. Perhaps a symptom (no pun intended) of her mental state, Sym seemed to take a backseat in her own life. Instead of acting on her own instincts, and then knowledge as the truth become clearer, she waited and waited--even in the end when nothing could be left in question. Despite this incredible weakness, she was also strong in other ways. She immersed herself in this make-believe world, which although of her own creation, was based in reality, in Antarctica. Every fact she read, every story she memorized, was stored away in her perfect memory. It added incredible detail to her daydreams, so she could crawl into them and rest in a place she respected, where she was loved. Problems only surfaced when Sym was forced to see her Antarctica in all its harsh glory.

It’s a little unfair how I’ve judged this book because so much of what disappoints me was born of my incongruous expectations. I thought this book would be more of an internal adventure, as Sym and Titus found a way to solve life’s mysteries together. I thought Titus would take an even more prominent position than he did, present for every moment of Sym’s waking consciousness. And the novel did begin this way, but then took a sharp turn, which really shouldn’t have been a big surprise. But then more and more of what happened seemed a bit fishy, and then the story devolved into a basic psychological thriller.

If that had been what I expected, I think I would have very little to complain about. Instead, I felt a serious, yet light-hearted story turned rather dark and malevolent. I don’t know what more to say about that, than it is so. In the end, my feelings toward that chosen tone were quite indifferent. And that’s what made me not love the book in the end. I simply had lost interest in the characters, considering that they became, in my mind, mere pawns in a twisted plot.

I do, however, understand perfectly why this book won the Printz. McCaughrean is an excellent writer, and I felt completely sucked into her world, so much so that, while reading, I often felt an Antarctic chill run down my back. I felt like reading this book curled up with a wool blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, and that’s saying something when the temperature outside is nearing 100. I really wish I had read it in winter--it would have been perfectly chilling. In the end, I can still appreciate the quality of writing and the genius behind a well-thought out plot. Although not on my must read list, still time well spent.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

Genre: Children’s/young adult fiction, historical
Publisher, Year: Avon Books, 1990
Other Works: The Fighting Ground, The Barn, also too many to list (70+)
Flags: Teen angst
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
Challenge: Library, Outdo Yourself, Historical Fiction
Premise: A young girl, Charlotte, sets sail to cross the Atlantic and join her family in America. Though the journey was planned as a convenient and speedy voyage, once on board, Charlotte realizes that nothing is as it should be.

Everything about this book is perfect. I am now left wondering why it took me so long to pick this book up. I remember hearing about it in elementary school when it first came out, and I seem to remember friends of mine reading this book as part of the curriculum, but for some reason, I never was required to. And since at that time, I was mainly focused on stories that involved “meet cutes” and simple romances that made my little tween heart go pitter-pat, what sounded to me like a pirate story just wasn’t appealing. Actually, I have memories of avoiding it. How I wish someone would have sat me down and force-fed me this book! I literally devoured it in one day.

Charlotte Doyle’s family moved from America to England when she was a little girl. Now that she’s thirteen, they are ready to make the trek back. However, the timing is not quite right, so to avoid Charlotte missing any of her schooling and carefully planning her arrangements--including chaperones--she is to meet her family at a later date. When she arrives at the dock, nothing is as it was promised. Yet, a young girl and used to being told what to do, Charlotte can hardly object when she is given no alternative but to sail anyway. Though she receives several warnings and herself feels the foreboding of impending doom, she cannot act, and therefore, seals her own fate. Mixed up in a game of cat and mouse between captain and crew, Charlotte finds herself smack in the middle of a war zone, faced with dilemmas that shake her to the core--her values, her trust, and her belief in herself. And the decisions she makes change everything.

What makes this book so perfect? In my opinion, the plot is beautifully paced. A perfect crescendo emerges as we meet the players and the tension builds. The foreshadow of dark catastrophe hovers like a mythical giant, face obscured. We don’t know what form exactly the tragedy will take, but it’s coming, of that we are certain. It not only makes the novel a page-turner, it provides the perfect environment in which Charlotte thrashes about, trying to understand her new atmosphere--the rules of this universe that is so different from her regimented girl’s school. And this produces the perfectly dynamic main character in Charlotte. She mirrors the pacing of the plot in that inside her, this same storm is raging, tension building, until she cannot sit idly by any longer.

Charlotte’s world is irreversibly turned upside down. She begins to question everything she’s ever known, she’s ever been taught. She is a product of the structured Victorian ideal, and she believes in it wholeheartedly as any impressionable girl of her age would. Her father is her master--and in his absence, the captain occupies his role as authority figure--and in her mind, a fair one, who judges the world in an absolutely flawless manner. Until suddenly, that authority starts to spiral into a crazed tailspin, leaving Charlotte dizzy and confused. And that’s when her childlike trust begins to crumble, when she must think for herself and develop a new ideal. And she takes to evaluating the world on her own terms like a fish to water.

Avi perfectly illustrates that terrible struggle when we are pushed from childhood by the realization that we are all fallible, adults alike. As children, we trust our elders implicitly, as Charlotte did. But there comes a time when the curtain is pulled back and the “wizard” is revealed as just a normal guy, pushing buttons to create an illusion of grandeur: we realize that our parents are just people, and those who we trust and love the most may not always be right. And Charlotte wisely begins to question every convention that she’s simply taken as fact for as long as she can remember. Some find that part of the story unbelievable, but I don’t agree. I’ve seen children who are thrown from childhood and grow up very quickly when faced with horrific realities of life. And that is exactly what happens in this story. I also enjoyed being thrust into this new world at sea, as Charlotte discovers it.

Avi does such an amazing (shall I say perfect?) job of describing this world with such incredible detail. I could see the ship pitching and rolling, feel the salty, wet wind on my face, experience the incredible isolation of life at sea. When I closed my eyes, I could truly imagine being aboard the Seahawk and feel the swell of the ocean.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a magical journey from beginning to end, replete with a cast of colorful characters, difficult decisions, and a strong, persistent female lead. Mix all these ingredients in the hands of a seasoned writer like Avi, and you can’t expect anything less than perfection, which is exactly what he gives you. This one will be given a revered spot on my shelf.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Genre: Young adult fiction
Publisher, Year: Harper Teen, 2008
Other Works: Saving Francesca, Looking for Alibrandi
Flags: Moderate language, teen angst, tenuous references
Rating: B+, or Mostly Good
Challenge: Library, Outdo Yourself
Premise: A young girl, abandoned as a child, finds a mysterious connection with the past in a town she thought she came to just by chance.

I was really excited to read this one. It’s my first experience with Marchetta, and I was hopeful to find another YA Australian author to add to my list of favorites. As a Printz winner and an often recommendation from several bloggers, I thought it stood a good chance of becoming a must read for me as well. Although I found this book hard to put down and I *liked* the story, I didn’t find it a homerun, I’m sorry to report.

Taylor Markham has had a difficult life. As a child, she grew up in the home of a drug-addicted single mother who abandoned her at a gas station on Jellicoe Road. She was found by a woman named Hannah, with whom she has an often turbulent relationship, and ended up at the Jellicoe School. She finds it hard to relate to her fellow students and is taken by surprise when she is chosen to lead her classmates in a territory war with the Townies and Cadets that began so many years ago. Just as she is getting started in this new role, Hannah--the only family she’s ever really known--mysteriously disappears, leaving her anxious and questioning her whole existence. With her support system vanished, Taylor finds friendship in unlikely places, all the while piecing together an old story about a terrible accident which also resulted in unlikely friendships, ones that Taylor begins to suspect may have affected her life in ways that she can’t imagine.

Marchetta is certainly a compelling writer, and I found myself very unable to put Jellicoe Road down. Let’s just say in the two days it took me to read this book, my toddler was watching a lot of Sesame Street and eating a lot of treats. If that alone could make a book for me, than Marchetta would have aced the test.

I enjoyed the complexity of the stories, and the ways in which they converged. I think what Marchetta did best was to illustrate the need everyone has of family, of belonging, of knowing that someone somewhere loves you. That connection to the past, to your own origins, is so tantamount because it gives you a place to be rooted, and then you are free to grow, to change, to become what you want to. When terrible things happen, there must be an explanation, no matter how tragic or how hurtful, as to why. There is a certain peace and calm that comes with knowledge and understanding, especially of a person’s past. Without that, Taylor was just a wisp in the wind, unable to connect to anyone, to really care about life, to look past her own strange and concealed history.

Marchetta’s characters do come off the page; they are very much alive and distinct. However, that they are realistic is not a compliment I can pay. I really tired of Taylor by the end. She is the type of character I rather dislike, in that she acts as if she can take care of herself but is completely unable, in every instance, to do so. Every bit of new truth set off either a health attack, a deep depression, or erratic and misdirected anger. Are these all normal emotions for someone who is faced with her kind of life? Perhaps, but it still bordered on a hysteria that gets old fast.

I found Jonah to be equally as unbelieveable, but in the opposite way. He was the ever-stalwart caretaker, which I found to be a stretch for any normal person, certainly in the case of a teenage boy. Were there mitigating circumstances? Yes. But I think even taking those into consideration, it was just a little much. No relationship can stand when one person is always giving, the other always receiving. And Taylor needed all of what Jonah could give, and more. That all being said, I still felt both characters had depth. Although there was more than one instance of eye-rolling as I was reading their interactions, I’ve got to hand it to Marchetta. Notwithstanding, Taylor and Jonah and all the other inhabitants of Jellicoe were all memorable characters.

Overall, an interesting and enjoyable story, but not one I feel devoted to. I don’t know that I would recommend this one. I think if it were to be made into a miniseries, “soap opera” would be the term to describe it. I simply didn’t feel the degree of reality and seriousness that I wish could have been there.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Yes, I Digress: Censored

I listen to Radio West in the car sometimes, when my toddler will let me. I can’t say I love every featured story, but there’ve been more than one that I’ve found interesting as well as entertaining. So, when I heard they’d be discussing a local high school theater controversy, I tuned in. And I have to say, I was yet again disappointed.  It wasn’t a new controversy; it was the same old one. 

Dead Man Walking, 1995
In a nutshell, the high school put on a production of Dead Man Walking.  I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I’m familiar with the story. It deals with the death penalty (a given) and religion. Fabrizio interviewed a woman representing the conservative group that has taken issue with the play, a professor from the University of Utah, and the head of the Dead Man Walking Project. And, as always, the woman representing the dissenters came off as an unprepared, rambling idiot, who couldn’t even answer simple questions in a straight-forward manner.  All she could do was spout phrases like “family values” and “community standards” and “political/social agendas.” Blah, blah, blah.

But, it’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened. No, more like the 100 gazillionth, right? And the argument is always the same, featuring that pesky word “inappropriate.”  What does that even mean anyway?  Appropriateness is a sliding scale that stuffed shirts use to illustrate some sort of superior “morality” crap. I’m so sick of that, I could die. (Melodramatic, me?)

I’ve got no loyalties to Dead Man Walking. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know, I can’t say.  What I can say is that censorship of this kind frustrates me. The point of putting on this sort of production is to help teens explore difficult issues--to make them think, to discuss, to find out what they believe in. That’s what being a teenager is about: learning what it means to be an adult, to experience the world, and to think for yourself. And I truly believe that teenagers do have the ability to accomplish all those things and with success, especially when faced with difficult topics. Impressionable? Yes. Drones? Not so much.

I can’t understand why people tend to get so worked up when teens are exposed to anything resembling real life problems and issues that they ought to be thinking about and puzzling over and figuring out.  And honestly, I think it’s good for them to take an issue like the death penalty, which has no easy answer like so many things in life, and think about it--really think about it.  There’s no better way to fulfill that need than through art.

What those people who make such a fuss will never understand is that by censoring, they simply label that work/piece of art with a big, fat "READ ME!" sign. Any of that student body who didn’t participate in or go see that play when it was performed are all going to rent the movie, or better yet, read the book. Immediately. Because that’s how it works. It’s part of that whole reverse psychology thing. So, why do they never feel the need to take care of their concerns privately? Why does it have to be a witch hunt? The thing that really gets me down is that teachers get fired over this sort of thing, and then those who are left behind get handcuffed and gagged. They get hit with so many new regulations that they can never teach anything again, except for unicorns and rainbows and little girls in pigtails.

But I also understand that there’s got to be censorship when it comes to kids, and even for adults, in my estimation. I censor material for myself sometimes--I take opinions of people I trust for what I think will be “appropriate” for me in my life. Certainly there does exist the passing off of rubbish in the name of art. And I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things in my life I would like to change if it were possible: something I saw or heard too early or just shouldn’t have seen or heard at all. And some of those experiences were a bit scarring, though I consider myself a well-adjusted person (Ha!). We all get that to a degree though, don’t we? No matter how much we bubble wrap ourselves or our children.

In the end, I have to go easy on the naysayers though, because what I think it really boils down to is that some people have artistic brains and some don’t. I’ve written before about how my mom fits in the latter category. And I love my mom, and it’s her prerogative. But it’s just so difficult to know where to draw the line. And before that is definitively determined (if that’s even possible), what will be the book-burning expense we have to pay?

That’s life, I guess. We continue to face questions that have no easy answers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The School of Essential Ingredients
by Erica Bauermeister

Genre: General fiction
Publisher, Year: Putnam, 2009
Other Works: Debut
Flags: Teen angst, tenuous references
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
ChallengeLibrary, Outdo Yourself
Premise: A collection of stories about people and food, and how they go together.

Another book club pick, The School of Essential Ingredients is Bauermeister’s breakout novel. This is a book for foodies, but unlike some novels, I felt like the author paid equal attention to her storytelling as to her obvious love of food. And to top it off, she’s also a talented writer. A joy from beginning to end--if you are looking for the perfect summer read, this is your book.

The book begins with a little background of the teacher, Lillian, who runs a cooking school out of her restaurant. As a girl, she uses food to lure her mother out of a deep depression, and as a result, cultivates a deep tie to cooking and knows its power to change people. Then, we meet several strangers who come together at Lillian's restaurant to learn how to make good food. Each brings a fresh perspective, each with a unique life circumstance. And Lillian, acting as a sort of food therapist, finds a way to bring out the best in each of her students, simply by getting them to cook.

When I read (well, read some) of Julia Child’s My Life in Paris, I thought I had experienced that rare quality that foodies love: the description of cooking and eating that stirs something in the soul, meaning the words not only make you intensely hungry, but also make you appreciate food more, make you want to spend some quality time with a crab or some pasta or the perfect white cake. But this book really hit a chord with me because Bauermeister was not only able to make me appreciate good food, she made me realize that food affects every part of life. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the term “comfort” food, but this goes so much further than something deep fried and dripping in grease. This is food that heals, gives courage, offers a fresh start, makes us better people. Food can do all that? Bauermeister thinks so, and I believe her.

She also made me understand that it’s not just the eating of food, but the creation of different flavors and textures that makes the difference. The act of cooking is a sort of balm--a natural, intuitive way to tap into our inner selves and to share those secrets with others, to connect with people. Okay, now this is really waxing philosophical.

This author knows her way around figurative language.  I’ve never read such beautiful and uniquely correct similes in my life. Her figurative language expressed the emotion of the characters as perfectly as could ever be hoped for. My ears were thanking me with the passage of each one--to the point where I had to laugh and actually go back and read them aloud to myself. And there are so many. You’d think with such a repetitious writing style that the descriptions would become stale--a parody of itself. Couldn’t be further from the truth. The richness of the language was almost good enough to eat.

And Bauermeister is able to accomplish all this AND have a little fun, too. This book is packed full of little anecdotes, sometimes tragic, sometimes whimsical, but always full of meaning. Each student’s chapter is narrated personally, and that’s sort of a pet peeve of mine. I have to say that it does get confusing, keeping so many voices straight. However, this book is so endearing, I can’t say that I minded it much--except that I wish I could have been privy to more of the storyline with some of the characters.  We get to know each one a little, but none a lot. And because of that, I didn’t really feel like I knew any of the characters well. But for all its charm, I just can’t see that as a fault. Instead, I think the construction reflects the main intent: that each student in the class is like unto an essential ingredient. There are so many ingredients to discover, we can’t spend too much time favoring just one or two because it’s the diversity of flavors that make a dish delicious.

An absolute delight. If you are looking for a vacation or beach book--this is it. And you’ll be happy to know that even though it’s a light and easy read, it’s not just fluff. This book will leave a lasting impression, too.

Friday, March 30, 2012

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Genre: Young adult fiction
Publisher, Year: Knopf Books, 2005
Other Works: The Book Thief
Flags: Adult themes, tenuous references
Rating: A, or Great Read
Challenge: 100 Books, Library
Premise: A young man finds himself on a journey to complete certain tasks: protect the diamonds, survive the clubs, dig deep through the spades, and feel the hearts.

I really enjoyed The Book Thief, so when a friend mentioned that she liked this book, I figured I should give it a go. Took me awhile to get around to it, slowly but surely. This one wasn't an automatic for me, but in the end, I think I liked it. I'm still not totally certain. Of one thing I am certain however, and that's that Zusak is a very talented, very brave writer. And even though I didn't love, love, love this book, I still have strong feelings for him as an author. (In the most Platonic way, of course--hehe.)

Ed Kennedy is going nowhere. He's a nineteen-year-old cabbie, making ends meet and playing cards--that's about the extent of his life. Until one day, he and his friends stumble into a bank robbery, where Ed finds himself in the unlikely role of hero. That's when he receives his first card, and his life changes forever. He faces each challenge completely empty-handed, looking and searching for ways to help the people he has to help. This time, failure is not an option. And as he meets his challenges, each one more difficult than the last, Ed finds something in himself that he never knew was there.

I loved Ed--there's something about him that is truly endearing. He's hopeless, and he doesn't care about that. He lives in the most honest way he can muster and looks for a bit a joy where he can find it. But he learns through his challenges, that that is not enough. It's not enough to live small. I think what Zusak touches on here is borrowed from John Donne. The idea that each of us is lacking something that someone else can fill, thereby making an entagled web of connections between all of our human hearts.

And when that happens, when that intricate web is woven, you find love there--great love. A love that can only develop through great sacrifice. This was the part I felt I needed a few days to marinate with, after turning the last page. Because at times this story is violent, overly so. And that part confused me. For Ed, this journey was painful in every sense--emotionally and physically. And after all was said and done, the pain tied him to each person he met in such a deep way, as that pain slowly transformed into love. But why did it have to be so painful? Why were the consequences so great? And then I realized that it wasn't the pain that formed that unbreakable human bond--it was the act of sacrifice. And sacrifice is always painful. Without pain, there is no sacrifice. But without sacrifice, there is no love. And if you take away love, then you are left empty.

Zusak illuminates these sentiments with perfect clarity, without becoming sentimental. Every page is shot through with the most beautiful poetry and lasting images. But I have to say that I was disappointed in the ending, which I felt took away from the meaning of the story and made it feel arbitrary. However, I think this has very little to do with the quality of the writer, or even the book, but rather is a symptom of the process that is a writing career. Zusak is ever improving--he can't be thought at fault because of his success. These rungs on the ladder have to come from somewhere. And in that, I can pardon this terrible disappointment, and I didn't let it ruin the experience for me. And that's exactly the word I would use to describle this book--an experience. One that won't fade for some time, I'm sure. So yes, I think I liked I Am the Messenger--I'm pretty sure I did. =)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Genre: Fiction
Publisher, Year: Knopf, 2011
Other Works: England, England and Arthur & George
Flags: Moderate language, Explicit references
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
Challenge: 100 Books
Premise: Prompted by a curious package, an older man reflects back on his life and some events of his youth that may turn out to be very different than he remembers.

I got this book for Christmas last year, with a nice little gift certificate tucked in the front cover. I always get nervous when I buy a book that I haven’t read before (even though this one was technically purchased for me). Yes, it’s true—I will go and buy a book after I’ve read it from the library. That way, I spend wisely! Anyway, this one turned out to be not worth the nerves at all. It was a beautiful masterpiece, in my opinion, and completely deserving of the Booker prize. That being said, and as much as youth is discussed in this book, I would not recommend this one for younger readers.

The book opens with a group of boys, Tony being our narrator, in high school, debating ideas and philosophy. One boy, Adrian, is clearly the intellectual superior, which makes him the most popular of the group. His comments are always surprising, and yet somehow, spot on. As the boys grow up and go off the college, they grow apart, but each one tries to maintain a friendship with Adrian, Tony included. Tony experiences new things in school, the most important of which is that he gets his first girlfriend. When these two worlds collide, it will set in motion a series of events that will end in tragedy, which will come back to haunt him in his later years, revealing new information that will grip Tony with the realization that things have not always been what they seemed, that perhaps even he is not the person he thought he was.

[Disclaimer: I’m not going to talk about the actual plot points of this book because I feel you have to read them as Barnes intended. There’s an itching temptation to give away too much. And I hope that will be enough to entice you read it yourself!]

I think this book starts out sort of ordinarily pretentious. Those opening pages resemble what some have related to Dead Poets Society, and I have to admit that they did conjure up those images: standing on desks, clapping in a circle, ripping out pages, opening young minds. But it soon takes a turn, and by the end, I could see how every paragraph, every sentence was meticulously chosen—every moment a meaning. Not a word was wasted. And meaning poured forth, like a river of truth.

I love Barnes’s thoughts on the young and the old. The audacity of youth: the innocence, the dreams, the freedom. And that is juxtaposed against the reality of old age: the ordinariness of life, when dreams fall away and the everyday takes shape. He calls it comfortable, peaceable. Tony chose the peaceable way, but in the end, did he choose comfort over fulfilling his potential? Or did he really never have a lot of potential in the first place?

When we are young, we want to believe we are special; we want to believe we are good. When we think back on our memories, we see ourselves in the critical light of the time. We don’t analyze our actions and decisions with the wisdom that age brings, nor are we in any way unbiased. And Tony gets to experience the unpleasantness of questioning himself, after all those years. Here he says of youth: “What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.”

And yet, time marches on. It continues forward no matter what our regrets or fears. Whatever we have done with our lives, ordinary or extraordinary or rash, it is done. One event follows another, and each domino falls. And all those events are gathered in to produce a person’s character. The problem is, that the discrepancy between what I think my character entails and what others do, can be vastly different. And as time goes on, as we’ve established it inevitably will, those memories get hazy and misshapen. How can we really be sure of anything? Even something as personal as ourselves? Our own lives? Who we are.

I am going to go so far as to say that this book is genius. It’s a short read but so packed with meaning, I am still reeling from it. I know it will merit rereads in the future and continue to become only that more valuable to me. Oh, and the other thing: I loved it. I absolutely loved it.