Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Book Thief: Final Review

SPOILER ALERT: If you've not yet finished The Book Thief and you're one of those people who hates it when people give away the ends of books, skip this review.

Human beings are a frightening and incomprehensible bunch.

This, at least, is Death's final assessment of humanity in Markus Zusack's The Book Thief. The Grim Reaper, having witnessed both the worst examples of hateful human behavior (in Hitler and Nazi Germany) and also the best that humanity has to offer (in the Hubermanns' sacrifices for Max), ends his story with the words, "I am haunted by humans."

This haunting (which is a wonderful reversal -- Death afraid of humans instead of the other way around) seems to stem from Death's recognizing the inconsistent and indefinable nature of humanity.

How can it be, Death implies in his tale, that a people so capable of nobility and kindness and sacrifice can also be so capable of absolute hatred and evil?

For example, consider this description Death gives us of Jews being murdered in gas chambers at Auschwitz:

"When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity's certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower" (349).

And then, on the next page, Death makes an important observation, directed at his readers:

"They were Jews, and they were you" (350).

They were human, Death says, and yet, other humans did this to them. Other humans caused this holocaust and let these murders happen.

All of this gives special meaning to one of Death's earlier statements:

"You want to know what I look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror" (307).

Death knows that at times he is simply an agent of humans, and the face of Death really is the face of mankind.

And yet, Death also knows that humans are so definitely capable of kindness.

For example, when Death comes to collect the soul of an Allied pilot whose plane has crashed, he witnesses this:

"[Rudy] reached into his toolbox again and searched through some picture frames to pull out a small, stuffed yellow toy."

"Carefully, he climbed to the dying man."

"He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot's shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat."

"The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In English, he said, 'Thank you.'"

And while Rudy's kindness should seem to soften Death's attitude towards humanity, it only makes humans even more incomprehensible. Death is haunted by humans because they are so immensely unpredictable. Humans are both noble and despicable, both giving and hateful, both great and selfish. What makes us either good or evil is a mystery, and nothing rings so hauntingly as an incomplete answer to the mystery of human nature. Are we good? Evil? Cruel? Kind? Pathetic? Divine? Not even Death knows.

But that's only half the brilliance of The Book Thief. The rest is this:

Death's final words -- "I am haunted by humans" -- are more than just a declaration. They're also an invitation. Because I've read Death's story, I've also seen the mystery of human nature. I've also seen both the god-like and the evil sides of humanity, and so in Death's final words, he invites me to recognize the mystery and be haunted with him.

And I am.

That's why The Book Thief is spectacular.

The Book Thief WWADY Rating = 9/10

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

May's Featured Book: Good Poems

Since April is National Poetry Month, I've been spending more time over the past few weeks reading poetry than I normally do. This has been good for me for a lot of reasons. Here are two of them:

1. I've slowed down.

What is it about poetry that's just so dang relaxing? Now, I know that some of you who were forced to analyze poetry in college or high school will question just how relaxing poetry really is, but hear me out.

I felt so relaxed reading poetry this month because I was reading it of my own choice. I wasn't ever going to take a quiz on what I read, and I certainly wasn't ever going to write an essay and submit it for a grade. I wasn't even going to teach any of the poetry I was reading in my college classes. I was just reading poetry for fun.

This means I didn't have to feel any pressure while I read. If a poem was obscure and difficult, so what? I didn't have to get it. I didn't even have to finish it (and I'll admit, I read more than a few first halves of poems this month). Sometimes I read poems this month that didn't do anything for me other than show me one clever phrase or one interesting image. But so what? Isn't that enough?

Kicking back and reading poetry with a total disregard for whether I was "getting it right" proved liberating, and let me tell you, it's the most restful thing I've done in ages.

2. I've been paying more attention to words.

This month, I started reading billboards again. I started reading junk mail. I even started reading the printing at the tops and bottoms of receipts. I did this not because I cared any more about advertising or junk mail or receipts than I used to, but because I wanted to see if there were any interesting phrases or images in the words I'd been ignoring.

And it turns our, there are. I even found the perfect title for a short story I've been working on in a letter from a lawn care company. Reading poetry this month awakened me once again to a world of everyday words.

So, I'd like the WWADY featured book for May to be a book of poetry. I'd like you to have the same experiences I've had this month with words and poetry and peace.

For the month of May, then, I'd like to feature a book titled Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor. Admittedly, I'm kind of cheating on this one, as not all of the poets in the collection are still alive (e.g., William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and others), but I'd say that roughly 85% of the collection is made up of contemporary poetry.

And to those who shiver at the thought of reading poetry, let me say this: Good Poems is easy to read. The poems are meant to be accessible and decipherable (even the one from Shakespeare is pretty manageable). Good Poems is also organized by topic, and a few topics include "Music," "Lovers," "Day's Work," "Sons and Daughters," "Failure," and my personal favorite, "Complaint."

If it's been a while since you've really given poetry any attention, I'd ask that you get a book and read along with me. You'll be glad you did.
I'll make my first post on Good Poems on May 8th, so get your copy soon.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Too Sick To Blog

I'd hoped to write my final review of The Book Thief today, but (and this will sound incredibly wimpy) I'm just too sick. My body is aching. My stomach is churning. My head is pounding. I haven't slept in two days. I can barely keep my eyes open. So, as soon as I can, I'm going home to bed.

It's just not a day for critical thinking. (See? Pretty wimpy, huh? And also a bit whiny.)

So, I'll post my final review of The Book Thief next friday, and for now, I'll leave you with this link to today's Writer's Almanac, which showcases a poem called "Autopsy in the Form of an Elegy" by John Stone. It's simple, sweet, tragic, and wonderful.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced

Today the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were announced at Columbia University. I think most readers have come to expect a lot from the Pulitzers as they have a pretty good track record.

Over the years, they've given awards to some of the best writers under the sun including Alice Walker, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and the list goes on.

This year, the winning book in fiction is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (which was named, a few months ago, a National Books Critics Circle Award finalist). Olive Kitteridge tells the story of a seventh-grade math teacher, and in addition the these awards, it's received strong reviews like this one.

The poetry winner for this year is The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin. If you're interested in poetry (and April is National Poetry Month), you can read about Merwin here. Even better, you can check out one of his poems, "Yesterday," here. (Warning: It's terribly sad).

If you'd like to see a complete list of this year's winners, click here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Book Thief: Young Adult Literature?

For the past few years, I've subscribed to The ALAN Review, a journal published by The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents. As their name suggests, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents isn't really an organization for adolescents. After all, what thirteen-year-old would want to tell their friends they belong to an "assembly"? To do so would only conjure images of stodgy old British folks sitting around in leather chairs wearing black robes and pre-colonial wigs.

"No," our nation's teenagers would rightly say, "but thank you."

What's more, The ALAN Review includes articles with titles like these:
  • "From Basketball to Barney: Teen Fatherhood, Didacticism, and the Literary in Young Adult Fiction"
  • "Critiques and Controversies of Street Literature: A Formidable Literary Genre"
  • "Adding a Disability Perspective When Reading Adolescent Literature: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"

As you certainly already know, vocabulary words like "genre" and "didacticism" and "critique" scream to any adolescent, "STOP READING ME NOW AND GO TEXT SOMEBODY."

But, despite its academic snobbishness (ahem), The ALAN Review does provide a valuable service to parents and teachers. Other articles have titles like, "Reaching Reluctant Readers" and "Books for Boys." Overall, I've found The ALAN Review to be a fabulous resource in helping me find books for my students and children and, mostly, myself.

The one thing, however, I've never found in The ALAN Review (or anywhere else for that matter) is a decent definition of young adult literature, which brings me to the question The Book Thief (a supposedly young adult book) has me pondering today. Here it is:

Is The Book Thief really "young adult literature" and what does that term even mean anyway?

I've been exploring this question for a long time now, and through my study of young adult literature and through various conversations I've had with a good friend who's a professor of young adult literature, I've determined that there are two dominant and largely unstated definitions of young adult literature in the literary world today. Neither of them, however, seems to be very good. In fact, they both seem to be pretty belittling to young people.


The first definition I see of young adult literature looks something like this:

"Any literature we adults would like to read but don't necessarily want associated with us because, after all, grown-ups are grown-ups and a lot of this literature is just too short, too simple, or too trashy."

I think this definition is why books like Twilight end up getting the young adult label slapped on them despite the fact that their readership is made up primarily of adult women. A lot of adults are uncomfortable reading cheap, sloppily-written, lit-candy. But if they can call their lit-candy "young adult," they never really have to acknowledge that the book is part of their own world. They can see the book as a part of some other universe, one they explore, but never inhabit.

Practically speaking, the young adult label lets insecure adults say things like, "I'm only reading this to see if it would be appropriate for little Jennifer" or "I'm reading this to stay in touch with young people." To these folks, I'd say this:

Please. We see through you. So do book publishers, but they're quite happy slapping a young adult label on something if it'll make you more comfortable buying it.

TANGENT: I know by calling Twilight "cheap, sloppily-written lit-candy" I've invited the scorn of the masses. Bring it on. I'm ready for it, and I can take it.

The result of this definition is that a lot of the shorter or easier or trashier literature on the market ends up being sold as young adult literature, not because young adults enjoy short, easy trash any more than adults, but because adults (the people who buy books) want to read short, easy trash without having to claim it.

I should clarify here that I don't believe by any stretch that The Book Thief is trashy. It is, however, written in simple, accessible prose. It has pictures. It's full of breaks and white space. So, when deciding whether this book was an adult book or a young adult book, what impact might these details have had?


The second definition I see of young adult literature looks something like this:

"Literature in which a typically adolescent main character experiences a coming of age."

This definition seems flawed to me for two reasons. First, it's far too broad. Arguably, every story is a coming of age story. Characters grow and evolve. Without this growth, literature becomes stagnant, and stagnant stories are typically bad stories.

Second, because this definition is so broad, it also ignores content. The assumption that books about young adults are for young adults is silly.

After all, Romeo and Juliet is a story about asolescents, but I'd argue that it's not even remotely for adolescents. Romeo and Juliet isn't even a love story (sorry, Taylor Swift). Romeo and Juliet is a story about bad parenting, and Shakespeare has far more to teach parents in Romeo and Juliet, I'd argue, than he has to teach adolescents. Yet, we thrust Romeo and Juliet onto young people and tell them it's a love story simply because the main characters are young.

Which all brings me back to my original questions:

Why is The Book Thief being called a young adult novel? What is young adult literature? When is a book more appropriate for young people, and when is it more appropriate for adults?

Your thoughts?

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Book Thief: Opening Questions

In teaching college, I've learned that sometimes the best way to begin a book discussion is simply by throwing out a few genuine questions and seeing what comes of them. So, to begin our discussion of The Book Thief, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Here are a couple of questions that have been banging around in my head as I've been reading this book. If you have any answers, please feel free to share. Even better, I'd love to see what questions about this book you have roaming around in your heads, so feel free to drop those in the comments.
Here goes:

QUESTION 1: Why would Zusak choose to make Death the narrator of this story? The most interesting narrators are, I think, narrators that evolve and change simply through telling their tales (think Nick from The Great Gatsby or Ishmael from Moby Dick).

For these storytellers, the very act of storytelling transforms them in some important way. It gives them heightened morality or answers to their own personal problems, so is it possible that Death could evolve through his telling of Leisel's story? Death is supposed to be constant and unchanging, and yet in this book, Death seems terribly sad (and bored). He longs for something. Perhaps this is coldhearted of me, but so far, I'm more interested in what's going to happen to Death and how he's going to change than I am interested in Leisel. Why make Death a storyteller? What is that achieving?

QUESTION 2: What am I supposed to make of the strange interludes? You know, these things:

* * * A QUESTION * * *
What's up with these things
in the middle of the story?

I'm not sure I like these things. True, they make the book easy to read. ("Hey, I cruised through that page in no time!) But they're kind of getting in the way. Each time I encounter one, I'm reminded that I'm reading a book. For just a moment, I see the page instead of the story (that probably makes no sense), and when I'm into a story, I don't like to be distracted. I'm not sure what to make of them yet.

QUESTION 3: Why is Death so interested in colors? I've always figured Death to be a very black and white kind of thing. Again, I'm more interested in Death so far than Leisel, and his fascination with colors intrigues me. What should I do with that? Do specific colors mean specific things?

Well, there they are - a few of the questions I've been working through so far. No answers yet. Just questions, but I think that's a good place to start.

So, as you're reading The Book Thief, what questions are you thinking about?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Guest Book Review: I Have Lived a Thousand Years

Today, I'm posting a book review written by a bright, hard working BYU-Idaho student named Spencer Holm. The book he reviews is I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson. It's a work of non-fiction, a harrowing account of a holocaust survivor, which seems fitting given that we're currently reading The Book Thief.

Thanks, Spencer, for this well-written review:

"I Have Lived a Thousand Years is not the diary of a victim of the holocaust published posthumously. It is not historical fiction either. I Have Lived a Thousand Years is the first-hand account of the horrors of the holocaust, told by someone who survived to know the injustice of what she experienced. Livia Bitton-Jackson, born Elli L. Freidmann, was thirteen when she, her mother, and her brother were taken to a concentration camp in Auschwitz, Germany. She is one of the few who survived their sentence there. In 1945, her family was released and eventually came to the United States. I Have Lived a Thousand Years is a descriptive memoir of Jackson’s harrowing experience.

"The book begins with Jackson describing her happy childhood, setting the reader up for the horrors to come. Jackson then describes the measured invasion of Hungary and how she and her family are systematically stripped of their pride and their possessions. The following chapters describe Elli and her family’s deportation to various concentration camps, she and her mother’s separation from her brother, and their arrival in Auschwitz. The bulk of the book is spent describing the horrors that she faced in these camps and she and her mother’s desperate struggle to stay together and to stay alive.

"Jackson’s thorough descriptions give the reader a personal view of these camps. She depicts the detestable food and living conditions, the harsh guards, and the rigorous labor that were forced upon her and her mother. Several times she and her mother are faced with death and, through sheer determination, miraculously survive. When she and her mother are finally liberated, Jackson tells of a German civilian who believes she is much older than fourteen:

'How old do you think I am?' She looks at me uncertainly.
'Sixty? Sixty-two?'
'Sixty? I am fourteen. Fourteen years old.'

"Elli’s has seemingly 'lived a thousand years' in her year of living in concentration camps. This is a sobering reminder of the inhuman treatment of the victims of the holocaust. Yet Elli is a survivor and this is what sets this book apart.

"Elli’s hopeful journey to America gives the reader a sense of optimism for the fate of the human spirit. Her ensuing education and normal family life (not described in the book) show that there is life after experiencing some of the most unimaginable physical and mental anguish ever inflicted on mankind. For anyone looking for a book that will lift and inspire, this book provides that and much more. Jackson delivers her story in a comprehensive, direct fashion, leaving readers with a sense of the triumph of human perseverance."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Writer of the Day: Michael Chabon

Last week I took a group of students to the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Ogden, Utah. This conference, held at Weber State University annually, gives students the chance to read their own works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and literary analysis to a large audience, and it lets them hear from and meet successful authors.

This year's keynote author was the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bon). I've been a fan of Chabon's since I read his book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay years ago.

I like Chabon for two reasons:

First, I like Chabon because he's hilarious. He has a dry, occasionally sarcastic wit, and he takes ordinary, mundane objects and uses them to point out the absurdity of life (which he did in his speech by observing that any Lego creation these days comes with an oppressive set of instructions that demands to be followed exactly. These instructions make putting together a Lego toy a non-creative, painful process that, when completed, renders the possibility of playing with a Lego creation and potentially dismantling it by accident unthinkable).

Second, and more importantly, I like Chabon because he's trying to reclaim literature for the common reader. He's doing so by arguing for the value of entertaining, plot-filled books. (Gasp!)He's even said, "I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period."

Heavily influenced by comic books and popular culture (his keynote address included extended references not just to Legos, but also to Doctor Who, the anatomical impossibility of comic book women, and The Fantastic Four) Chabon's writing is easily accessible.

Also, unlike other successful writers who tend to pooh-pooh genre fiction, Chabon vehemently defends it. He even won a Hugo award and a Nebula award (science fiction prizes) for his book The Yiddish Policemen's Union. He criticizes today's literary fiction as "plotless" and attacks what he calls the "contemporary, quotidian . . . moment-of-truth revelatory story."

Chabon's on a mission, trying to "annihilate" the academic bias against genre fiction by blending the best elements of literary fiction (attention to language and character) with the best elements of genre fiction (entertaining plots).

If you struggle with overly literary books and had a tough time plowing through Unaccustomed Earth, maybe you should check out Chabon. He's blending two worlds. He's literary and artistic, but he's also a firm believer in entertaining plots.

Learn more about his books here.

NOTE: We start discussing The Book Thief in four days, so get your copy soon.