Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Frustrated English Teacher FAIL: Three books I could NOT get through...

I really tried. But like The Book Thief, The History of Love left me feeling adrift in a world of lesser quality literature. I have tried, since posting last, to read three books and each one left me feeling, for lack of a better descriptor, "meh". I wanted to like them, but was, for one reason or another, unimpressed, underwhelmed or outright annoyed at them. And so, down they went. Sadly, two of them were purchased with my own money, as opposed to a gift card or a library find. So that will teach me.

Dinner with Anna Karenina, is, in my opinion a big fat rip-off of the Jane Austen book club, but with Tolstoy. The first thing that put me off? The print is MASSIVE, and all I could think of was my former students who opted to print their essays out in 16-point font in order to fill space because they really had nothing of importance to say. I read about 35 pages, got a big pain in my ass from the soap-opera quality of it and I couldn't continue. The fear of what was going to happen to my love of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina made me slam on the breaks pretty fast. I have no idea if it would have unfolded into one of the best stories I've ever read, but I couldn't take the chance that it would turn into treacle in my hands and ruin the literary classic for me forever.

I gave the second book, Firefly Lane, 125 pages worth of effort. I liked the premise of the story: two childhood friends struggling through adolescent angst and trying to maintain a friendship in the face of their own individual identity crises. The problem? I liked it better the first time I read it, when it was called Beaches. I read Beaches with my best friend when we were teenagers and she was Cee Cee Bloom and I was Hillary Essex. We wept when the movie came out and Bette Midler sang, "The Wind Beneath My Wings". It was the ultimate "BFF" book and movie, and, corny as it may be, it's etched in my heart as such. I don't need to replace it with another book with the same premise.

Also? The 80's references made my head hurt. The author tried so hard to call to mind so many fads, clothing and otherwise, from that decade that I felt like the story got lost in the kitcsh of the time period. Yes, yes, you have a very good grasp of the fact that shoulder pads and double-wrap belts were stylish in the 80's. Bravo.

The last book I tried to read was Suite Francaise. It was good. But I couldn't finish it. The story of a collection of Parisians who flee Paris during it's occupation during WWII, I could not care about any of the characters. They all, with very few exceptions, seemed so self-centered and obnoxious to me that I couldn't make myself care one iota about how their lives turned out. So when the book came due at the library, even though I only had 100 more pages to go, I decided not to renew it. Meh.

I need some suggestions. I need a good book. Frustrated English teacher, indeed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

This book is proof that I need to stop reading before I fall asleep. Because I loved it, but I'm not entirely sure I know exactly what it was about. I can only imagine how I'd feel about it if I'd been 100% alert while reading it and able to keep track of the zig-zagging through characters and history.

This is the story of Leo Gursky, and old man approaching death, who is so alone that he goes to Starbucks, orders lattes and then spills them just so that people will turn their heads and give him a moment or two of their attention. His loneliness, his story, what he's lost in this life, is so tragic that my heart just ached for him as I read.

It is also the story of Alma, a young girl mourning the death of her father, trying to find a new life's meaning for her mother, and searching for the story behind her name, which comes from a book her father gave her mother while they were dating.

I fell in love with the book in the very first pages and I'm afraid I read it too quickly and hungrily to take it all in. I'm thinking I'll be reading it again some time soon and putting among my list of favorite books.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, Kathleen Flinn

I happened upon this book a few days ago, on a "Buy One, Get One 1/2 Off" table at Borders. I am a complete sucker for those types of "I didn't really need any books to begin with, but think of the money I'll save if I get two books for the price of one and a half!!!....wait. what?!" deals, so voila. Here it is.

A quick and completely enjoyable read, this is a memoir of a woman unceremoniously sacked from her corporate career and who, with the encouragement of her too-good-to-be-true-but-really-is-true boyfriend, pursues her lifelong dream of studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Each chapter regales us with anecdotes of her experiences, in class as well as in life, and provides us, if we dare, with a recipe taken from her class work at the culinary institute (and in some cases, from her mom).

I read one review of the book that called it "light reading", and while it's not War & Peace (erm, thank god, considering what I went through with that book earlier this year---no, thank you!) and while I did manage to get through it in two days (although, let it be noted that I was up until 1am this morning reading it), I hesitate to call it "light". Despite the fact that it carries with it no major tragedies or heartbreaks, it is still a recounting of someone's life, and dreams, and of the courage it takes to dive into the glorious unknown and embrace the experience, be it a soaring success or an utter failure. Maybe in literature, that's considered "light", but in life, it's just about the heaviest thing there is.

I loved the book--it is fabulous to every once in awhile read a book that leaves you feeling hopeful and lifted up at the end; and leaves you wondering, if you had that opportunity--what would your Le Cordon Bleu be?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Other, David Guterson

Every once in awhile I'm relieved to read a book that I'm not madly in love with, just to be sure that I've not gone completely mushy in the brain and decided all writing is OMG, THE BEST BOOK EVER!

So I feel okay saying I just kind of liked Guterson's The Other. It's actually one of those books that I am appreciating more as I get farther away from it, realizing and "a-ha"'ing at the themes and the character developments that aren't necessarily subtle, but were lost on me as I tried to plow through the sometimes snoozer of a plot.

The Other the story of the narrator, Neil Countryman, and his life-long friendship with John William Barry. The two meet as runners in high school, competing against each other, and bond over their sense of adventure and love of the outdoors. When the time comes to pick a life's path, Countryman follows the more conventional, college, career, marriage and family path, while Barry veers off the beaten path, in an attempt to shed the trappings of materialism, as he has been obsessively reading about Gnosticism. He leaves college one day, walks into the woods, and lives, as the newspapers later describe, as a "hermit" for the remainder of his life.

Countryman periodically visits Barry, catching glimpses of the life Barry has created for himself in the wilderness, and the book essentially follows Countryman in his attempt to understand why his best friend has chosen this life for himself, and to support him and stay connected to him in whatever ways he can.

It is not until late in the the story that we begin to understand exactly why John William Barry is the way he is and why he has made this choice for himself. Somewhere around page 200, I started to find myself saying, "ahhhh, of course," and developing a big giant soft spot for John William. His life is a classic case of how our earliest experiences form our personalities and the way in which we are able to perceive and interact with the world around us.

In a very "Prayer for Owen Meany" kind of way, John William Barry touches the life of his best friend Neil, by setting an example of purity of purpose and dedication to his sense of self that goes above and beyond what one normally expects from a mere mortal. But John William's life goes beyond setting an example for Neil--in a very practical way, it allows Neil to fulfill his own life's sense of purpose and brings full circle the passion of two young men, joined in a race to the finish line.

While reading the book, I felt very "ho-hum"-ish, not loving it, not hating it. Just checking periodically to see how many more pages I had to read before I could go on to the next book. But after sitting back and thinking about it, I see that Guterson wove such an intricate tale of how we become who we become, who we influence, and how the choices we make for our own lives reverberate outside of ourselves like a stone on the water. Not a fabulous in-the-moment type of read for me, but an awesome sit-and-think-about-it-afterwards book.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Conversation with Death: The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

"I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away."

With this, the narrator of The Book Thief introduces himself. He is Death.

Rarely have I found myself so at once repelled and intrigued by a book. I started it over a year ago and was unable to get more than two or three pages in, because the prospect of reading 500-odd pages in Death's voice was more than a little bit disturbing to me. I'm the girl who wakes up in the middle of the night, struck with a throat-gripping realization that I'm going to die some day. And that my parents are going to die someday. And that my husband is going to die some day. And I really can't go any further down the line than that before I'm hyperventilating in the dark and trying to talk myself down off of my morbid little mental window ledge.

So clearly the idea of having to listen to Death talk to me about Nazi Germany didn't really appeal. But at the same time, I could not stop looking at the book. Wondering what story Death had to tell me about the book thief. And one of my best friends recommended it--she couldn't be steering me wrong, herself having dealt with so much death in the past few years. If she could tolerate Death's voice and come out the other side of the book feeling so strongly about it, I had to be able to give it a try.

And I have to say, I fell just a tiny bit in love with Death, as he is presented through the mind of Zusak.

Death tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a girl mercifully abandoned by her mother into the arms of a safe German family, shortly after she witnesses the death of her brother. This death haunts Liesel through most of the book. Even though she is unable to read, she steals the copy of The Gravedigger's Manual, which is left behind after her brother's burial.

Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read the book at night, when she is awakened from her slumber by the nightmare of her brother's death. As she learns to read, she becomes aware of the power of words and under a variety of circumstances throughout the book, finds herself stealing other books--either stumbling upon them and rescuing them from destruction (this is Nazi Germany, after all), or willfully breaking and entering the homes of others to obtain a new book for her collection.

Not long after being taken in as a foster child by the Hubermann's (the both of whom are depicted in such richness and compassion that I fell absolutely in love with them, even when Rosa is bellowing and threatening in her cranky mean-mama bravado), the family is joined by Max Vandenburg, a Jew hiding from the Nazis. He takes refuge in their basement and forges a friendship with Liesel that reaches into the outer stratosphere of poignancy. It is one of those connections that is achingly beautiful and timeless---a Boo Radley to Scout Finch type of powerful. The image of Liesel, a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth movement, and Max, a middle-aged, weak and terrified Jew, seeing each other as allies and friends, defying the mandate of the times, speaks to the power of the individual over tyranny.

Aside from becoming so attached to the characters and loving the irony of Death's compassionate and utterly human voice, I was struck by the theme of the power of words. A young, illiterate girl discovers and falls in love with the beauty of words at the same time a hate-filled, murderous dictator comes to power through the exploitation of words. The night of her town's book burning illustrates this---as Hitler demands the destruction of all pre-Nazi literature in her town, Liesel is compelled to rescue a book she finds left at the end of the burning--unable to part with the treasures that might lie inside the covers of the book, regardless of the crime it might be read it.

And what of Death himself? How is it possible that a reader can come to the end of this book and feel both sorry for, and comforted by, this grim reaper?! It is simply through his use of words---he chooses to share, through his words, the parts of himself and his experience that make us feel for him. He tells us how he is overworked and exhausted by Nazi Germany--how he himself is just a messenger, not a force to despise, but to pity,

"There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what the year is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of far away guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it it least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I am busy at it is. 'Your time will come,' I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times, I wish I could say something like, "Don't you see I've already got enough on my plate?!' but I never do. I complain internally as I go about my work, and some years, the souls and bodies don't add up; they multiply."

It isn't Death who makes these choices, at least in times of war. It is us. Death wants us to reassure us that he is, in fact, watching out for us, taking care of us in the best way he can, as he recounts in this description of visiting upon a gas chamber in an unnamed concentration camp in Poland,

"The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, slowing down, slowing down... Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fears."

It is impossible not to love this book. The characters, the narration, and the depth of heart poured into every word by Zusak make it one of the most powerful and beautiful books I've ever read.