Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday Teaser: The Book Thief

"Many jocular comment followed, as did another onslaught of "heil Hitlering." You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost and eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You'd only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of the forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that's getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire."

I started reading this book yesterday and I have to say, I am addicted to it. It's hard to tear yourself away from a book about Nazi Germany where the narrator is Death. Seriously, Death. Never did I think that Death would have such a wry sense of humor, although I guess you'd have to, to be able to deal with that kind of work (which is how he describes it).

I figured out why I like the Tuesday Teaser so much; when I was a teacher, passages from texts were a huge part of my curriculum. As individuals and groups, my students often had to pull passages from the text and explain their significance. I spent years of my life looking for passages that contributed to thematic, symbolic or character development. I miss that. This challenge is a little tough for me, because I know I'm supposed to choose a random passage from a random page, but I admit that as I'm reading, I tend to get a passage in my mind and spend a few minutes trying to find it before I write this post. Oh well. Sue me. :-)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

2009 Challenge: What's In a Name?

Okay, so last year, I got all pseudo-uber-intellectual and decided I'd take on the Booker prize challenge. That got me through exactly three of the eight books I was going to read for that challenge before my brain turned to mush at the hands of Margaret Atwood.

Then, early in 2009 (well, earlier in 2009), I attempted to take on Tolstoy's War and Peace, to no avail. I maintain that I had a lousy translation of the book, but the fact of the matter could be that gone are the days when I could absorb the great literary canon with little to no effort, picking up symbolism and thematic development the same way a mathematician figures out nothing more complex than long division. Sigh. I guess when it comes down to it, moving from AP English to freshmen English, to middle school English, to Good Night Moon and the occasional crossword puzzle, I's gotten dumber, dagnubit.

So, rather than fishing for the loftiest reading challenge I can get my flailing braincells on, I though I'd focus on one that was a more random and entertaining, with no real intellectual merit, just a fun way to figure out my reading list for the next couple of months. This challenge simply asks me to pick books that have certain words or ideas in the titles. Here it is:

What's In a Name?

*Dates: January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009

*The Challenge: Choose one book from each of the following categories.

1. A book with a "profession" in its title. Examples might include: The Book Thief, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Historian

2. A book with a "time of day" in its title. Examples might include: Twilight, Four Past Midnight, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

3. A book with a "relative" in its title. Examples might include: Eight Cousins, My Father's Dragon, The Daughter of Time

4. A book with a "body part" in its title. Examples might include: The Bluest Eye, Bag of Bones, The Heart of Darkness

5. A book with a "building" in its title. Examples might include: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little House on the Prairie, The Looming Tower

6. A book with a "medical condition" in its title. Examples might include: Insomnia, Coma, The Plague

*You may overlap books with other challenges, but please don't use the same book for more than one category.

So there's my challenge. I am going to start with The Book Thief, as it has been recommended to me at least a half dozen times. If anyone's got any other titles that fit any of these criteria, please feel free to suggest them; I really have no other books in mind at this point!

I spent the last few nights trying to get into a couple different books I got out of the library, but to no avail. This generally happens after hitting on a book that really moves me, like Moloka'i. So, since I already have the Book Thief, I will start that tonight...happy reading!!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Moloka'i, Alan Brennert

You know when you were in 7th grade biology class, and you got to the chapter on things like bacteria and other creepy crawlies that could get in your food or into your body? And remember how, every time you read about a new gross disease your body could contract, you were absolutely 100% certain you had symptoms of that disease and you were totally freaked out and sure your life was over? Was it just me? Tiny little neurotic 7th grade Sarah? Maybe.

Well, that's kind of what reading Moloka'i, by Alan Brennert, the story of a girl condemned to life on Hawaii's leper colony at the turn of the 20th century, was like. At least at first. I couldn't get a zit without poking at it and feeling relief that it was, indeed, painful to the touch and therefore was not some leperous lesion.

I knew very little about leprosy going into the book and learned quite about it about how it is contracted (it's not nearly as contagious as people thing and the hysteria around it reminded me much of how people initially responded to the idea of the HIV/AIDS epidemic) and who tends to get it (children between 5 and 15 years of age) and how it progresses (depends on the kind of leprosy you've got) and the history of it's treatment in the modern age (everything from witch-doctor brewed tea to western antibiotics), as well as the history of the disease in Hawaii. I remembered from reading James Michener's Hawaii that a leper colony existed at the turn of the 20th century (and did up until at least the 1980's) on the small island of Moloka'i, and was both horrified and fascinated, so when I saw Brennert's book, I jumped on the chance to read an entire book devoted to the subject.

Moloka'i is the story of Rachel Kalama, a young girl living in Oahu, the youngest daughter of a seaman and his wife. Rachel's spirit longs to join her father on his 8-9 month journeys out to sea and to mysterious and exotic foreign countries. Her family is close-knit and loving; husband and wife show affection and joke with each other and their children. Siblings love each other, but also rival each other for parents' attentions. Your typical, happy, family. Until one day, Rachel blossoms little red sores that are numb to the touch.

It isn't long before, at 7 years old, Rachel is whisked away from the clutches of her family (at the angry, jealous accusation of her older sister) and sent on the steamer Moloka'i, to the island of Moloka'i and the leper colony that has been established there.

The book follows her life on Moloka'i, with its heart-breaking losses, enduring hope and moments of small loving mercies. At times it feels like Brennert set out to fashion a new vision of Job, in the leprous body of a young Hawaiian girl in the 20th century. Rachel truly endures more heart-ache and loss than most characters I've encountered. I found myself becoming fiercely protective of her and angry at those who would do her harm or treat her as less of a human because of her disease. Brennert created such a compelling and sympathetic character in Rachel that I often found myself putting the book down, either out of sorrow or anger, until I could collect myself and move on with the story. Rachel's capacity for love and hope in the face of so many tragedies and such society-induced shame was inspiring.

The book is rich with characters who experience Moloka'i from a wide range of perspectives. Both the diseased and the "clean" live in the pages of this book and on the island of Moloka'i and through them, we get such a well-rounded view of what life was like for these people, it is hard not to become entirely wrapped up in the book.

Along with the lives of these individuals, the history of the time is chronicled as well; everything from the United States' take over of the islands, to Pearl Harbor, to the Japanese interment camps find their way into Rachel's story. That is my favorite thing about historical novels; having the drama of an individual's life placed against the backdrop of historical events, just as our unique life experiences unfold amongst the collective reality of our times.

The book is incredible and I was sad to see it end. It's a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Booking Through Thursday 1

Do you read any author’s blogs? If so, are you looking for information on their next project? On the author personally? Something else?

I read a few authors' blogs--Stephanie Taylor Wilder's "Baby on Bored", who wrote Sippy Cups are Not Far Chardonnay and Naptime is the New Happy Hour. I started reading Stephanie's blog actually before her books--I was on 14 long weeks of bedrest during my pregnancy w/ Ethan and I found Stephanie's blog through someone else's. I had no idea she was a published author, but she made me laugh so hard I almost peed (admittedly not difficult in the middle of the 2nd trimester). She has a wry, sarcastic, sometimes painfully honest perspective on parenting and her voice is so familiar and comfortable, the blog is one of my favorites.

I also read Jennifer Lancaster's (Bitter is the New Black, Such a Pretty Fat, Bright Lights Big Ass) blog, "Jennsylvania". She's ridiculously hilarious.

I've also read, but don't religiously follow, the blogs of both Stephanie Klein (Straight Up and Dirty, Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp), and Jess Riley (Driving Sideways).

I rarely look for information on their latest books; I'm far more interested in their stories and just hearing their voices (I'm in it for the comedy, mostly).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tuesday Teaser: Moloka'i

The explanation for Tuesday Teaser can be found by clicking on the "Tuesday Teaser" icon on the left side of my blog.

I'm currently reading Moloka'i, by Alan Brennert

Anger and doubt erupted again like lava, emotions entirely inappropriate for this place, this act. She sprang to her feet and bolted from the chapel, startling a sister about to enter, and retreated to the safety of her room. There she fell again to her knees, knitting her hands together in a tortured mimicry of prayer. Whenever she felt the anger bubbling up she would stop, take a few minutes to compose herself, then start again; but though the anger slowly cooled she found that oozing up between the words of contrition and adoration was a troubling fear. Fear of herself and what she was capable of, what she had done to that little girl; and fear that perhaps Sister victor was right, that contagion was all around them.

Just have to add, I am LOVING this book. Loving. More later.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink

I had hoped to love this book more than I did. I could never quite fall into step with the narrator's voice or feel much for either Michael or Hanna. There was such a stoicism in how Michael told the story of their affair and of Hanna's trial later on, it was almost impossible to rouse any emotion or empathy for them. Am I the only one?

I did find Hanna's conflict interesting--that she'd choose to take the blame for such egregious crimes over admitting to the degree to which she lacks education. It seemed like such a counter-intuitive thing to do; I'm still not entirely sure I understand why she makes the choice she does---is it pride or guilt? Does she feel that she deserves the harshest punishment even though she is not the one who masterminded the crime? Is the austerity with which she lives her life and pushes people from her done out of a sense of penance or arrogance?

I'd like to believe she lives her life and makes the choices she does as a form of atonement, but it's never entirely clear--she is so devoid of emotion for so much of the story, and given her crime, it's hard to give her the benefit of the doubt. There's only so much sympathy one can drum up for a Nazi, you know?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Away, Amy Bloom

Well, maybe not "lighter", but at least this story goes a long way in restoring my faith in the strength of the human spirit.

Lillian Leyb comes to America after her family is viciously murdered in pogrom in Russia, a scene which plays out over and over in her mind in vivid and frightening detail throughout the book. She flees to a life in New York's Yiddish theater district, becoming mistress to both a theater owner and his son, while trying to put the memories of the past behind her. Until.

She learned that possibly, possibly, her daughter survived the pogrom and is currently living in Siberia with a family who rescued her. Without hesitation, Lillian leaves New York City and sets out across the country, from New York to Seattle to Alaska and to the Bering Strait. The intensity with which she strives towards this goal is heart-rending. Any parent wants to believe they'd do the same; under-take any obstacle or trial of strength and perseverance. But to travel in a railroad car broom closet, psyche out pimps and prostitutes, walk from Alaska to Russia (yes, I know Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, but still), with only the faintest hope of making the trip in one piece and with no set information about where to find your child? In Siberia?

The book falls short of being epic only because it's just too short. I wanted the book to be 500+ pages; I wanted there to be detail, more character development, more everything. I wanted more of Lillian's history, more scenes going across the country, more interactions with other characters.

My favorite part of the book, aside from Lillian herself and her fierce determination, was the way Bloom provides an epilogue for each character Lillian encounters, after she leaves them. As though their lives, after being touched by her, are set on a certain path and Bloom must let you know what comes of them, even though Lillian never will. It was brilliant and it made each character seem so much more real than they would have if they'd simply ceased to exist in the book's world once Lillian moved on.

So not really the "light" book I said I was going to read (I started Jon Stewart's Naked Pictures of Famous People, but wasn't really feeling it), but it was well worth the emotional energy I spent on it.