No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, March 28, 2008

#22: The Book Thief -- Marcus Zusak

They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalogue of colours. That wasn't how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that's exactly what they were, for many of them would die. They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke, and their souls trailing behind.

I started reading The Book Thief just as my March slump (evident in previous years) hit: I lost interest in reading anything, and it took me a while to finish the novel. Though it has some gorgeous prose, this is not a cheerful book. Unsurprising, given that it's set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death: there are moments of peace, love, beauty in this novel, but they're like slanted sunshine through black clouds. Liesel Meminger is the eponymous book thief: almost certainly an orphan, she watched her brother die en route to the small town where they're to be fostered. (This is her first encounter with Death, and her first book theft: a handbook for gravediggers). Arriving at the house on Himmel Street (in a small town just outside Munich: I'm not sure it's ever named), Liesel finds herself in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. Rosa verbally abuses Liesel, though it's just her way of showing she cares: Hans teaches her to roll cigarettes for him, and to read.

Liesel plays football, steals food and has adventures with the boy next door, Rudy Steiner. (Rudy is the character I liked most: possibly because we see him through the filter of Liesel's affection, and possibly because he doesn't have time to go bad.) She can't share the biggest adventure with him, though: the arrival of Max, a young Jewish man whose father saved Hans Hubermann's life in World War I. Max has an accordion; Max lives in the basement; Max, in one of the episodes that makes this book more than just another novel of Nazi oppression, paints over the pages of Mein Kampf to write and illustrate a story for Liesel.

Life goes on. This is life in wartime: bad things happen, though not exclusively bad things. There are bombs, deaths, books that Liesel is given, air raid shelters, Liesel reading to the neighbours, Liesel writing her own story -- which is the book that Death carries everywhere with him.

There's a great deal of glorious poignant prose in this novel: nearly all of it is in Death's framing narrative:
I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men.
They are not.
They're running at me.

(The typography of Death's narrative is also innovative and arresting.)

I'm torn by Death. I'm not sure his narrative is necessary to the story. We learn that God is absent or doesn't listen: that souls have colours: that Death is haunted by humans. That Death loves the souls he takes, Jews and Nazis alike. That he comes as comfort to those in extremity. That he is moved by Liesel's account of her life. But the story would stand without him, though the book would be a lesser thing without the vivid novelty of Death's metaphors.

#21: Everworld 1: The Search for Senna -- K. A, Applegate

This is the first in Applegate's 12-book 'Everworld' series, and I might not have read it if I'd realised that it ends on a cliffhanger and that the second book (previewed at the end of The Search for Senna) picks up the plot without a break.

Everworld is a world created by a coalition of gods: a world populated not only by those gods (mostly at war with one another) but by their followers and believers. A group of teenagers from contemporary America -- David, April, Jalil, Christopher -- are pulled into Everworld in search of Senna, April's half-sister, whose powers of witchery are blossoming. David has a crush on Senna, and wants to believe well of her. Which is why he and his friends end up on a Viking longship, off to battle the Aztecs and their bloodthirsty deities.

The social dynamic of the group rings true: gossip, friendship, awkwardness, humour. And the prose is sharp and snappy, with short chapters, excellent pacing and an impressive immediacy. Very readable, and I can see how it'd hook reluctant YA readers. I'm not hooked enough, myself, to read the other books immediately -- but I'll certainly read them.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

#20: Selected Tales and Sketches -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read this for the Blog-a-Penguin-Classic project, and I have to say I wouldn't have picked it up otherwise. I've read and enjoyed several works by Hawthorne, but for me his work is best in small doses: Selected Tales and Sketches is over four hundred pages long, and consists largely of Hawthorne's earlier short fiction, before he'd made a name for himself as a novelist.

To someone familiar with the modern short story, and especially with genre fiction -- I read a lot of SF, a genre in which the short story form is an arena for ground-breaking innovation and general cleverness -- the tales and sketches in this collection seem unsophisticated. That's hardly surprising, as they were written nearly two centuries ago (between 1830 and 1844) and seem to me to typify the earliest truly American literature: Hawthorne is trying to escape the traditions of European (and especially British) fiction, to start afresh as his Puritan ancestors did.

There are plenty of Puritans here, not always especially godly. Hawthorne iconifies the Puritan whipping-post ("which may be termed the Puritan May-pole") as an emblem of Puritan repression and joylessness. He tackles religion in several of the tales here, including 'The Celestial Railroad' which describes a railway trip to Hell -- with Apollyon as Chief Engineer -- through the landscape of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. 'The Maypole of Merry Mount' describes a bucolic masque with pagan overtones, broken up by a stern band of Puritans: 'as the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gaiety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest'.

Often, in these stories, Puritanism is coupled with its dark antithesis, witchcraft and devil-worship. Hawthorne was born in Salem, and grew up with tales (and family history) of the witch trials: he brings a Gothic sensibility to tales of superstition and the supernatural. 'Young Goodman Brown' is the story of a young Salem Puritan who, encountering a gentleman on the road finds himself attending a ceremony deep in the forest, and recognising 'a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity'.

There are other recurrent themes: the wild frontier, and the transformative power of wilderness; the Indians; the Revolution; the sea. Women who, though innocent, have some deadly power: 'Rappacini's Daughter', one of the longer tales here, is the tale of a mad scientist who makes his daughter's glance fatal to flora and fauna. Some of the tales suggest the themes of Hawthorne's later novels: 'Endicott's Red Cross' features a woman forced to wear a scarlet letter 'A', for Adultress, while there are plenty of family feuds and dark and bitter secrets reminiscent of The House of Seven Gables.

The theme that interested me most was that of the storyteller, at once outside his story -- often providing a simple framing narrative for some Gothic spine-chiller -- and wholly in love with his audience. In 'Passages from a Relinquished Work', which is the unfinished tale of an itinerant story-teller, it's hard to believe that Hawthorne is not opening his own heart, showing his own doubts, when he writes:
Since I shall never feel the warm gush of new thought, as I did then, let me beseech the readers to believe, that my tales were not always so cold, as he might find them now. (p. 77)

The story-teller's tales are not notably cold, but the framing descriptions of his listeners, the towns where he stops, the landscape through which he wanders are warmly and lovingly drawn: the story-teller (and the author) display compassion and affectionate mockery for the ordinary folk who, though of a different background and sensibility to the story-teller, are never painted as inferior. Here, and in the majority of the other tales in the collection, there's plenty of telling psychological detail, albeit sometimes heavy-handed.

It's possible that, as Colacurcio writes in his detailed and erudite introduction, Hawthorne is satirising himself in the person of the story-teller: that the anguished artist losing faith in his own powers of creativity is not Hawthorne himself -- who was at this stage in his career struggling to make a living from his writing, struggling towards publication, not yet a novelist -- but Hawthorne's mockery (less affectionate now) of the excesses of other writers, or perhaps more cruelly of his own doubts. I think I'd rather believe that Hawthorne's story-teller stands for the author himself, in his fascination and compassion and psychological insight.