The Book Thief

11 06 2010

Before I picked up The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I had these conceptions about it – that it’s a somewhat sloppy mystery book, in which a clever thief leaves the clues about him in the plots of some all-time well-known books or that he uses the stories from various books in his thievery. Ha! I really don’t know what gave me that idea. My imagination sometimes just runs wild!! 🙂

With these prenotions, let me confess that I wondered about the reason for its popularity. So, it is just to quench my curiosity that I picked this book up. I didn’t know at that time that I would be pleasantly surprised by it.

The reality couldn’t be farther from my expectations. It turned out to be a holocaust novel. Hmm… And guess who the narrator is! It’s Death. Gosh! For the first few pages, I was not sure whether I would really want to read it to the end. In those pages, Death speaks about the colors of sky when he picks up souls and all that somewhat creepy stuff.

This book is set in a German town Molching during the Second World War time. The story revolves around a girl named Liesel Meminger, who is a book thief. She has not always a thief, though. It starts when she picks up a book called – The Gravegigger’s handbook at her brother’s grave.  Books and words play an important role in her life.

The grimness of the subject and the gruesome circumstances of those times coupled with the brilliant narration of the author has left me haunted by The Book Thief. The characters -Liesel Meminger, her foster parents – Hans Hubermann and Rosa Hubermann, Max (the jew, whom the  Hubermanns tried to hide and protect), Rudy Steiner (neighbor and best friend of Liesel), Ilsa Hermann (the mayor’s wife) – all remain with me  for a long time to come.

I was especially fascinated by Max’s sketch book – The Word Shaker, depicting Hitler as someone whose primary weapons are words. It’s beyond my understanding how one person could do so much destruction – destruction of lives, how one person is capable of so much violence and brutality.

Tears welled up in my eyes at many points as I read through the book and I literally cried a few times. The scene where Liesel discovers Max among the demeciated jews on their way from the concentration camp to a neighboring town was really heart-wrenching. As per the author, Liesel kissing dead Rudy’s lips was the most difficult part of the book for him to write, emotionally speaking. But for me, the effect of it was lessened by the author’s reluctance to hold the suspense to the end and the premature revelation of the events that would occur later.  

 The novel was an absolute compulsive read. Everything was so unexpected that the pleasure of reading had been  multifold and the element of surprise had enriched the whole experience. I always feel that reading a book is like a journey, it’s an experience. And The Book Thief offered me one of the best.

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Everyday Survival

27 11 2009

Everyday Survival by Laurence Gonzales has the interesting tagline – Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. Obviously, it’s the tagline that attracted me towards the book. I expected to find some wise, funny and witty insights into the subject matter, but I’ve quickly realized as I read through the book that  I was wrong in hoping so. The book had a totally different direction and far more depth than I originally conceived.

In trying to find answer to the question – “Why Smart People Do Stupid Things?” -, the author has explored many subjects including but not limited to evolution, physics, astronomy, psychology etc. Laurence even went on some adventures like going deep inside the supposedly infinite cave, traveling far to a place uninfluenced by the modern life etc.

The stupid things the author is interested to investigate resemble the following:

  • People getting lost and be scared inside a state park, which is just 3/4th mile wide and a mile long
  • The author himself mistaking a real rattlesnake for a rattlesnake-looking ashtray of his grandmother
  • A pilot acting in a nervous and incorrect way to a seemingly usual issue during the flight thereby leading it to crash
  • Tourists eager to watch the volcanic eruption utterly incapable of estimating or even conceiving the magnitude of the impact

The author explains how the behavioral scripts that we create guide our behavior in same or similar situations  and how they can make us fail to see the obvious anomalies. Also when we don’t have any scripts to follow in an entirely unexpected situation, we fail to act in any sensible manner which in some cases can lead to our doom . This can be clearly witnessed in the tsunami victims on the beach.  They have already ignored any warning signs of the nature, and as they watched the giant wave coming forward, they just stood there unable to realize its potential to destroy their lives. Nothing in their experience prepared them for such an event. There were no behavioral scripts to follow.

So, when modern people are faced with ancient hazards, they don’t know how to react. This is largely because we have dropped our guard and are in a ‘vacation state of mind’. With all the progress made by us, we have grown complacent and built up the illusion of safety net around us. We lost curiosity to know things around us.

The author goes as back as the origin of the universe and start of life in trying to understand our true nature. He makes it a point that ‘life’ itself is only a minor part of the overall grand system and the entire human race is like not more than just a fleeting second in the geological time. By pointing out how insignificant the human race is, despite being the most intelligent species on the earth,  to the grand system, the author urges us to be more humble and just play our part. If we act unwisely by upsetting the nature, as we are doing it right now, wiping us out is not a big deal for the system. Our earth has seen many extinctions so far. The author opines that Global Warming is really an important thing to think and act upon, if we wish our future generations to survive. Life will continue whatever may be the conditions, but the human race may not. The author also talks a lot about entropy and how this law governs all the events in the universe including the emergence of life.

The author’s argument for the cause of Global Warming really caught my attention and I kind of bought it. It has had a great effect upon me as it seemed to reverse my view on the issue until then. My earlier take on Global Warming that it’s largely a myth propagated by fund and fame seeking research organizations was shaped by Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. It might be silly to be influenced by fiction in such matters, but that novel seemed brilliant to me and I was awed by Michael’s arguments and conclusions.

Having discussed and explored lot many things, Laurence concludes his work by reiterating that by a habit of knowing – a craving to know – our world and ourselves and by the simple act of consciously paying attention, we can enrich our lives and can even cast a protective web around ourselves and our children.





The Time Traveler’s Wife

10 09 2009

I’ve just started reading this novel by Audrey Niffenegger. Though the title was  self explanatory, I was not prepared for what is actually inside the book.

Henry is a time traveler who travels back and forth in his life. His wife Clare knows him ever since she is six, but he meets her for the first time only when he is 28.  The author tells the story by a strange jumble of dates and ages:

September 7th 1987, Henry 32, Clare 16 etc

For the first 50 pages, I was overwhelmed by all those dates and it seemed to me that the story wasn’t progressing in any particular direction. One question I kept asking myself was – how the hell did the author contrive such a story idea. And I’m really awed by the author’s power of imagination.

Once I got over my initial shock and got adjusted to the style, I’m found it very interesting..  The fact that it’s a love story made things easier, because if it was about  some mundane subject, it would have been a very confusing and difficult read.

I’m still around page 100 and there is a long way to go.. But I already have a feeling that it will turn out to be a very touching love story – perhaps one of the best I’ve ever read.

I’m also very eager to see the movie, but I would first like to finish reading the book.





The Reader

22 04 2009

I must say this book caught my attention only after Kate Winslet won Golden Globe for it. Reading it was an experience. I was bowled over by the narration. The characters deeply intrigued me. 

This is definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read and one which leaves an everlasting impression on me.

The story basically revolves around two principal characters: the narrator – Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz. It deals with the difficulties which subsequent generations have in comprehending the Holocaust.  The book begins with the narrator, then a 15-year old, meeting a tram conductress one day while returning from school. Later, a relationship develops between them (of course, physical) in which Michael is always kept dark about the details of Hanna’s life – both present and past. In a way, they don’t seem to be emotionally attached to each other.

And one day Hanna simply vanishes – I mean not like dead or something, she just leaves the place. Michael has no idea where she might have gone or at least where to look for her. Nothing to do about it, he simply moves forward with his own life.

After a long time, he happens to see her in court, as one of the group of law students observing a war crimes trial, among a group of middle-aged women SS guards. 

I don’t wanna say here what happens next.. Or how it’s gonna end.

Hanna seems to be a complex character, yet she was beautifully portrayed by the author, Bernhard Schlink.  I admire her for what she is.

I feel  Carol Brown Janeway deserves as much appreciation for his translation. It’s beautiful.

 

The Book

The Movie

 

Here are some of the passages from the book which captivated me:

 * * *  * 

If looking at someone with desire was as bad as satisfying the desire, if having an active fantasy was as bad as the act you were fantasizing—then why not the satisfaction and the act itself? As the days went on, I discovered that I couldn’t stop thinking sinful thoughts. In which case I also wanted the sin itself. 

* * *  * 

 But today I can recognize that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together—I think, I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something—whatever that may be—goes into action; “it” goes to the woman I don’t want to see anymore, “it” makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, “it” keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit, and then quits smoking just when I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a smoker and always will be. I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.

* * *  * 

Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain? 

 * * *  * 

Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept?

* * *  * 

So I stopped talking about it. There’s no need to talk, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.