Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Markus Zusak's Book Thief

When Maryellen and I heard Mr. Zusak speak at an ALA tea, we knew there was something special about this young man. He was - I'm not quite sure how to describe it - wise beyond his years maybe? I had not read about his book, published for adults in his native Australia, but for some reason, being marketed to young adults here in the states. Not that I don't think teens should read and appreciate The Book Thief, because I certainly do. Still, this book is so sophisticated, the writing so compelling, that adults may well miss out on a great read because of the library's decision to classify it for young adults.

Taking my library director's recommendation, I downloaded this to my mp3 so that I could hear actor Allan Corduner's brilliant performance as the narrator, a sardonic, witty Death with a capital "D." As you can imagine, Death is terribly busy in pre-WW II Germany. Hitler is making his run up to his vision of a perfect Aryan race and the mood is somber as people like Liesel's parents, branded as Communists, begin to quietly disappear. Death takes a particular interest in the 10 year old Liesel when he observes her clandestinely rescuing a book from the snow after her little brother's funeral. This book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, will change and possibly even save Liesel's life.

The Book Thief speaks to me on so many different levels. I don't want it to end yet I fear the ending too. There is no other time in history that draws me as much as the '40's do. My friend Don constantly marvels at how someone with such a sunny disposition as mine can be so fascinated by the darker side of humanity. I have no explanation. Perhaps acknowledging the worst in society puts the heros on an even higher pedestal? I only know that I feel such dread as Kristalnacht comes, bonfires of books burn in the streets of Molching outside of Munich, children are forced to join the Hitler Youth Brigade with no understanding of the hate they spew. Addresses of "Heil Hitler" are analyzed and interpreted for their sincerity.

Into this historical maelstrom comes Max, a Jewish refugee temporarily protected from suspicion by carrying with him and reading a copy of Mein Kampf. On Himmel St. (an ironic use of the German word for Heaven?) in Molching, Liesel's foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, open the door to Max, fulfilling a promise made years before and setting in motion a chain of events which will forever inform their lives and that of their beloved Liesel.

I just cannot say enough about this book and the thoughts it's engendered. Whenever I read about the Holocaust I wonder if, and hope that, I would have had the courage to stand against the evil in some small way. I think about the other races and cultures that have faced similar systematic persecution. Our own Native American population and the African Americans who relied on the genius of the Underground Railroad to reach some semblance of freedom in the North and Canada. Then I look around at the anti-Muslim sentiment in our country since 9/11 and worry about which group will be next. But, just maybe, by reading fiction like The Book Thief, our young people will be inspired to change the frightening path we're on.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Fascinating Read - Finally

I'm just finishing up a book that drew my attention months ago as I was putting away biographies on the new book shelf. The White Masai is such an amazing story that I began to wonder if it could all be factual. I hoped that Corinne Hofmann wasn't another James Frey and, just to be sure, I scoured the Internet looking for interviews and evidence. I now believe that Ms. Hofmann was truly, deeply in love with Africa and, by extension, with her Masai warrior, Lketinga.
My friend Don and I have talked about this phenomenon at length. He has been lucky enough to have lived and worked in several countries including Africa and the Middle East. He told me that it was common, among the women especially, to become enthralled by a certain culture and to then choose a husband as an entree to that life so different from what they've known.

When Corinne Hofmann arrived in Kenya from Switzerland, boyfriend in tow, she couldn't have dreamed that she would leave her business, family and friends behind for a life of loneliness, illness and poverty with a Masai warrior whose eyes met hers across a crowded room. (I feel like breaking into song....) I've never really believed in love at first sight, which isn't to say that I don't think there can be an immediate physical attraction between two people. To truly love someone you must know what's in their heart and mind, don't you think?

Corinne relentlessly pursued the warrior, Lketinga, for months. He at first, thought she was married to the boyfriend, and studiously avoided her. She on the other hand, had made up her mind. What's remarkable is how the two lovers managed to communicate enough to forge a life together in the Kenyan Bush, building and living in a dung and stick hut. Hofmann was accepted by her warrior's mother but distrusted by his friends, who undermined their relationship at every turn, planting seeds of doubt in Lketinga's mind about Corinne's faithfulness. This is where her inability to learn the language caused her a great deal of consternation and I was frankly surprised that she didn't try harder to understand what was being said around her.

Facing extreme prejudice among the Kenyans against their own Masai, Ms. Hofmann breaks through the red tape, obtains a marriage license and makes Kenya her home for four years, giving birth to their daughter at great risk to her own health. In the final analysis though it's not so much the cultural differences (and there are many) between Corinne and Lketinga, but the universal differences between men and women that forced their separation. The romantic in me so wanted to see them succeed in their union even as the skeptic in me knew that, as she said in an interview, she had to leave before she lost sight of herself.

Don't have time to read the whole book but perhaps I've caught your interest? IF you have high speed (the buffering can drive you crazy!) you can link to this website for a video clip of an interview and information on the film that's been made from Corinne Hofmann's story.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Rule of 50 - once again

My friend Andrea told me that our "famous" librarian, Nancy Pearl, spoke about summer reading books on NPR this morning. Apparently she shocked the interviewer by mentioning that for every book she recommends, she delves into and gives up on at least 12 others. What a revelation. Now, rather than feel guilty, I fancy myself a more discerning reader!

After I listened to Pearl's interview I took Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which I've been struggling with for weeks, right up to the check-in desk. The plot does have an interesting premise; mom delivers not one but two babies and the physician, her husband, takes it upon himself to send away the second child, a girl born with Down Syndrome. This could happen because the action takes place back in the early '60's when women were still well sedated during childbirth. We used to call this "the Joan Rivers school of childbirth;" wake me when it's over and my makeup and hair are done!

The nurse, to whom the disposition of the second child is assigned, cannot bring herself to leave the little girl in a home for the disabled in another city. Instead, she takes the little girl to raise on her own until the doctor, about whom she has a higher opinion than I did, comes to his senses and reclaims his daughter.

The writer's prose, I'm sorry to say, is just too simplistic to keep this story moving forward. One would guess, even if one didn't already know, that this must be a first effort. Yet I had to give it a go as the darn book has been on best-seller lists for ages and is still being discussed among book clubs all over the country. I'd still like to know the denouement - you've got to figure that the siblings will meet somewhere down the road and the decades of lies their parents have told them will blow up in their faces. I just didn't have the patience to get there.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

My week with Shakespeare

I've written here previously about Theatre Conspiracy, a local semi-professional acting troup that was recently ousted from their theatrical home of some 12 years. They are scouting around Lee County for a new performance venue but, in the meantime, Will Prather from the Broadway Palm has loaned Conspiracy his black box theatre for two productions this summer.
If you like Shakespeare or slapstick humor, do get yourself over there this weekend or next for The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged. Janice, Jess and I went on Thursday night and the $19 ticket price was worth it just to see these three white bread guys perform Othello as a rap. It's silly and fun and involves a good bit of audience participation. The entire second act is devoted to the bard's most famous play Hamlet. The skill of the three young men who take the roles of all of the characters in the play is especially evident in this set-piece.

I'm listening to a book that also revolves around Shakespeare, in particular, the sonnets. Carol Goodman is the author of The Sonnet Lover, an intriguing tale that involves college politics, art historians, film makers, lovers and suicide. Juicy enough to get your interest?
Those of you who know me understand my interest in all things Italian, so it doesn't hurt that the action in this book is taking place at the college's villa in the hills outside Florence. One of the primary characters, Dr. Rose Asher, is returning to La Civetta where, as a student 20 years ago, she had an affair with her married professore. Now she's there as an expert on Renaissance poetry, consulting on a film script written by one of her students. The film revolves around the identity of Shakespeare's "dark lady" and some missing sonnets. No, it's not rocket science but it's great fun!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Annie Dillard

When I first read about The Maytrees I knew I would add the title to my "to read" list. Even though I'd never read Annie Dillard previously, I was familiar with her and felt that I was somehow lacking for not having read her sooner. I was right!

Ms. Dillard's writing style, described in the book jacket as "spare and elegant," was a bit jarring to me at first. I tend toward writers with a penchant for long, flowing sentences that take up half a page. Her clipped lines of half-finished thoughts and conversations that lacked punctuation took a little adjusting to. I would sit and read a few pages out loud to feel the flow until pretty soon I was drawn right in. And guess what? You CAN start a sentence with a preposition!

It's the characters, though, who truly capture the imagination. Toby and Lou Maytree marry and live together in her little one-room shack on the dunes outside Provincetown. For fourteen years, with nary an argument, they share a life of simple quiet days, deep friendships, rolicking good sex and the raising of their only child, Petie. Toby writes his poetry, marveling at his good fortune and Lou reads anything and everything, feeding the hunger of her deep interior life.

When Maytree leaves town with their longtime friend Deary, it is more of a shock to the reader than it is to Lou. She simply accepts what life has given her and looks philosophically on the bright side; she'll have more time to read and, she has Petie. Dillard uses the perfect metaphor to describe this time in Lou's life. As she simplifies, cutting out fashion, radio, eating in town, and other people and things she no longer needs, she finds that "the blows opened her days like a pinata. A hundred freedoms fell on her." Twenty years later when a broken Maytree returns to Provincetown with Deary, slowly dying of heart failure, he arrives at Lou's door asking for help. She doesn't hesitate.

At a time when the news is so bleak and people are so mean-spirited, Annie Dillard's beautiful examination of the vagaries of long-term love, loyalty and forgiveness is a perfect antidote. The sense of rightness that this book gave me has stayed with me long after the reading of the last page.