The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Like I have said before, a few of the selections on my project reading list are future classic hopefuls, in other words contemporary books that people may still be reading 50 or 100 years from now. I recently added The Book Thief by Markus Zusak to the list under this very premise and I am very glad I did. I will not bore you with another plot summary of this book, but I must say the following:
First of all, the narration in this book is genius. Who knew Death could be so insightful, so sensitive, so humorous…so human?  Death as the narrator is not creepy at all, but really rather beautiful.
Second, Zusak’s use of descriptive language in this book is simply dazzling. He describes things in ways I had never thought to describe them before and yet it seems as if there could never have existed any other possible way to depict them properly.
Here are some of my favorite examples:
1.      “The buildings appear to be glued together, mostly small houses and apartment blocks that look nervous.”
2.      Describing Liesel upon her arrival on Himmel Street: “Coat hanger arms.”
3.      “The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder.”
4.      “They could hear nothing, but the manner in which Hans Junior shrugged loose was loud enough.”
5.      About Max: “Everything was so desperately noisy in the dark when he moved … he felt like a man in a paper suit.”
6.      About Rosa: “One or two gasped at the sight – a small wardrobe of a woman with a lipstick sneer and chlorine eyes. This. Was the legend.”
7.      “His eyes were the color of agony, and weightless as he was, he was too heavy for his legs to carry.”
8.      “As she crossed the river, a rumor of sunshine stood behind the clouds.”
Third, this book provides a different perspective than many examples of Holocaust related YA literature. The reader understands how WWII also brought hardship to the German people under Nazi rule. Granted, the hardships could not compare to the horror facing the Jewish population, but I think it is important to know that the Germans also went hungry and faced loss, etc.
I am not Jewish (in fact I have non-Jewish German ancestors and my grandmother has always been quite proud of her German heritage), but I have always felt like I carry a small piece of the souls of those Jewish people who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazi party with me somehow. I have dark hair and eyes…it could have been me. It is so important that we never, ever forget.
“On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil. The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then 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 fear…
Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye…
They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.” – Death

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

After finally finishing Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for the first time as an adult, I am feeling rather “bi-polar” regarding my feelings for the book. In turn, it both delighted and irritated me. This was one of my favorite books as a child. In retrospect, I think I found it so endearing because (as the only child living with my grandmother) I longed to be a part of a family like the Marches. As a child, I don’t remember feeling the sometimes over-bearing morality of the novel, but only the lovely warmth exuded to me through the sister’s lives and adventures. At times, I still found this novel comforting. The sort of book that is best read aloud so the words can wash over you as you read. However, at other times I found myself rolling my eyes at the utter “sappiness” of it all. Even Beth’s death was sugar-coated for goodness sake. Perhaps this is just a testament to how times have changed since Book 1 of Little Women was first published in 1868 and Book 2 was published in 1869. After all, it was commissioned as a children’s book and children’s books at the time were mostly morality tales. As Jo says, when first trying to sell her work in NY: “but, Sir, I thought every story should have some sort of moral…” Little Women was also autobiographical in nature and proved a sharp contrast to the more racy adult stories that Louisa had previously been writing for various publications to earn her living. In Harriet Reisen’s biography, entitled Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Louisa is quoted as having said this about the novel: “Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds, that will be the reason.” It certainly did succeed.

Louisa May Alcott

My favorite character is, as it is for most, Jo March…in who we find Louisa May Alcott herself: literary, unique, sassy, lively, independent, ambitious, yet sometimes low and lonely. Consider the following, one of my favorite scenes in the novel (reading as an adult):
“Jo was alone in the twilight, lying on the old sofa, looking at the fire, and thinking. It was her favorite way of spending the hour of dusk; no one disturbed her, and she used to lie there on Beth’s little red pillow, planning stories, dreaming dreams, or thinking tender thoughts of the sister who never seemed far away. Her face looked tired, grave and rather sad; for tomorrow was her birthday, and she was thinking how fast the years went by, how old she was getting, and how little she had seemed to have accomplished.”
Of course, Louisa never marries and Jo finally does. Although I liked the match of Jo and her Professor (once I got over the shock of her NOT marrying Laurie), I can’t decide if I would have preferred Jo stay unmarried and so more true to the character of Louisa. In this passage I truly sense that Louisa is speaking directly about herself:
“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight.”
In Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, we learn that Louisa would have preferred that Jo remain single, but that the demands of the majority won out: “Publishers … insist on having people married off in a wholesome manner which much afflicts me. “Jo” should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse, and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her.”

Bronson Alcott

The moral that stands out to me, among the many preached in the novel, is that money cannot buy happiness. Jo says this in the novel after an outing: “I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove a piece, and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.” Transcendentalism is my least favorite period in literature. I do not find favor in Emerson, Thoreau, or for that matter Bronson Alcott, also a Transcendentalist. He strikes me as a man who meant well, but in truth was selfish and altogether odd. The Alcott family suffered the challenges of profound poverty due to Bronson’s failure to provide for his family and I find myself wondering if Louisa’s younger years could really have been as happy, despite it all, as she depicts them through Little Women or if this was the way she simply preferred to remember it. We often remember the bad with more clarity than the good, but after reading Reisen’s biography the opposite seems to be true in Louisa’s writing of Little Women.  Maybe that is the true moral of the story…that we should cherish the good rather than the bad and move forward to even better days.
Abigail Alcott…Marmee

Anna Alcott…Meg
Louisa May Alcott…Jo

Elizabeth Alcott…Beth

May Alcott…Amy

Blubber by Judy Blume

Judy Blume was the “rock star” of children’s/YA literature when I was growing up in the 80s. I read quite a few of her books, but I don’t recall having read Blubber, published in 1974. I purchased the book for my daughter who, like the young characters in the book, is currently involved in the 5th grade experience.
Let’s take a look at some of the principal characters:
Linda – Although she is not the chunkiest kid in the class, Linda’s classmates bestow upon her the name “Blubber” after one innocent, but ill-fated oral report on whales.
Wendy – The class bully who orchestrates each new plot of terror against “Blubber.”
Jill – The main character of the book that does not seem to necessarily agree with what is happening to Linda, but who would not dare to risk her current social standing by not participating in the harassment…until one day she does take a stand and the tables are swiftly turned in her direction.
Blume does a decent job of showing how arbitrary peer relationships and acts of bullying can be at this age, how the most benign and seemingly simple things can land a child in the midst of horrendous harassment, and how transient and ever-changing friendships and social standings can be. The reader comes away knowing that sometimes these changes can be a positive thing. However, I was disappointed in how the teachers and parents handled the situations of bullying in the book. Granted, their reaction was quite realistic. Most adults tend to shrug this stuff off because they know that life does get better, that in the great scheme of things what happens in middle school hardly matters as an adult, and that children have been picking on each other for hundreds of years in school. Still, I wish just one of them would have really taken a stand. Bullying is a serious matter for the child who is experiencing the pain and humiliation and is not able to stand back and have the same perspective one can have as an adult.
It will be interesting to see how Alexa relates to the book. I know that she will not understand some of the more outdated cultural references in the story like I did, but I think that the theme itself is still extremely relevant today. Perhaps I will share some of her thoughts when she reads it. I really wanted to like this book, but honestly I am on the fence. I guess there just wasn’t enough of an anti-bullying stand.
Most disturbing part of the book: The girls are lined up and sent to the nurse’s office to be publically weighed each fall and spring! Can you imagine? Did this really happen in school in the 70s?
Favorite Quotes:
“You can tell a lot about people by staring into their eyes.” – Tracy Wu
“My teacher is Mrs. Minish. I’m not crazy about her. She hardly ever opens the window in our room because she’s afraid of getting a stiff neck.” – Jill Brenner

The List…

I have posted a list of 45 selections to begin my challenge. As the challenge moves along, I may elect to lengthen the list…perhaps to 100. A few books that I would have included are not listed because I have already read them (in the last couple years) for college courses I was taking: Robinson Crusoe…Daniel Defoe, The Scarlett Letter…Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emma…Jane Austen, The Red Badge of Courage…Stephen Crane, Uncle Tom’s Cabin…Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Awakening…Kate Chopin, East of Eden…John Steinbeck, and
A Prayer for Owen Meany…John Irving.

And yes, I love vintage and otherwise interesting book covers! Who doesn’t, right…right?
Anyway, I think I am going to make Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank my first two selections from the list. I have had a strange affair with books relating to Louisa May Alcott this year; starting with Harriet Reisen’s biography: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. I have also read March by Geraldine Brooks and The Lost Summer Of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees. I remember that in fourth grade our teacher purchased books from the Scholastic Book Order and then allowed us to each pick one from a table for our Christmas present. I was an avid reader as a child and so I, of course, picked the thickest book on the table: Little Women. I haven’t read this book since I was a child and am wondering if I will enjoy it as an adult as much as I did back then. As for The Diary of Anne Frank, I must confess that I have NEVER read it, although I have seen the movie.