When I downloaded the free copy of Blackwelder's The Day the Flowers Died , I was in no way prepared for the book I got. Yes, like many free download...moreWhen I downloaded the free copy of Blackwelder's The Day the Flowers Died , I was in no way prepared for the book I got. Yes, like many free downloads, it is in need of some good editing. There are times when the descriptions go on forever, and at times the narration or dialog feels stilted. However, Blackwelder's story is so powerful that is rises above these problems. I find myself, a month later, still thinking about the story, about the characters, as if they were people who truly lived - perhaps in my family, or a friend's family.
I studied Political Geography and German, and my husband's emphasis for his History degree was WWII. Between the books from his senior level classes and my German-Jewish writers class, I felt that I had a pretty decent handle on the events leading up to the Holocaust. I've been to numerous museums, both in the US and Germany, read memoirs and spoken to Holocaust survivors, so I thought that I had an (albeit sheltered and incomplete) empathy if not understanding of some of the emotional aspects of living in Germany during those years. But nothing has ever quite impacted me on an emotional level in the same way as Eli and Rebecca's story.
Throughout my reading I found myself stopping and looking things up in books such as Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933 or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, only to find that Blackwelder's history was achingly accurate. Things that I had intellectually understood now resonated on an emotional level. I had seen and understood the horror of the ghettos, but not the suffocating fear and uncertainty of the middle class street suddenly devoid of children, the park without strollers. I think it is easier to separate ourselves from things that are extremely horrible, absolutely outside the bounds of our experience. However, we have all felt the odd chill of an unusually quiet street, a silent park, an empty building. To imagine the streets of Munich thus, and to see it so through Eli and Rebecca's experience - the added fear, shame, confusion - left me deeply unsettled. They became real to me, and, despite knowing the few possible outcomes for them, I couldn't help but wish that I could unknown history for a little while. Or that Blackwelder might fudge the historical accuracy, but she does not, nor should she.
I don't think this book will be for everyone, nor do I think it is perfectly constructed. However, I think that Ami Blackwelder brought history to life for me in a way that, though I may not have liked, I certainly needed. I feel privileged to have know Eli and Rebecca, and find that, though they were fictional, they were also real. (less)
Nicholas Orme's Fleas, Flies and Friars is a thoroughly enjoyable look at the lives of medieval children through their poetry. Orme states in the intr...moreNicholas Orme's Fleas, Flies and Friars is a thoroughly enjoyable look at the lives of medieval children through their poetry. Orme states in the introduction that he had two primary criteria when compiling poetry for this book: 1) that it can be shown to have been composed, copied, used by, or aimed at children or teenagers and 2) that it include relevant passages from longer poems and stories, as well as works in Latin or French, that have previously been ignored. His goal in doing so was to, in his own words, help the reader to "learn more about how medieval children grew up, and be able to see beyond the popular perception that they were small adults, living though brief and impoverished childhoods. A medieval childhood could indeed be cut short by disease or distressed by poverty, but while children were alive they shared in a rich culture of songs, sayings, rude-nesses, riddles, tales, and (at the higher levels of society) works of instruction as well."
Fleas, Flies and Friars reminded me of nothing so much as Terry Jones' Medieval Lives. I am sorry to admit that, prior to reading Medieval Lives, I was one of those individuals that thought the term "dark ages" fitting. Medieval Lives taught me about the richness of the medieval life, and how many things modern Western culture accepts as fact about the middle ages are patently false (just in case you think they believed the world was flat, they didn't.) Orme has expanded upon that understanding to encompass childhood. Much of Orme's content comes from an invaluable source: a collection of school boy notebooks. These teenage boys were encouraged to write verses or songs they knew from childhood, or to make up their own, to then translate into Latin or French. I could not help but laugh at the constancy of teenage attitude: one wrote in the front of his notebook, "Who steals this book should be hanged by the neck; who blames what's here may kiss my rear." Another gem is the list of insults a boy translated into Latin: "Thou stinkest. Thou are a false knave. Thou are worthy to be hanged. His nose is like a shoeing horn. Turd in thy teeth! I shall kill thee with my own knife!" (I simply cannot type, read, or say out loud that "turd in thy teeth" bit without giggling like a school girl.)
Orme does a good job of forewarning the reader of differences in what was acceptable in the middle ages versus modern times, prior to the reader becoming outraged. It would be really easy to get caught up in the violence ('hey, that's child abuse' or 'how could a child do that?') and then totally miss the humor. Orme acknowledges the difference in such a way that it eases the reader into appreciating the poetry for what it was, not what we expect it to be. Likewise, he is quick to point out the dearth in poetry for or about girls (the lecture on how to be a good, godly wife notwithstanding.) This is not a fault of Orme's but of history's. Women probably had just as lively poems, stories, and songs, but women were not formally educated (meaning no school notebooks from girls) and all that oral tradition was lost.
Each of the five parts of Fleas, Flies and Friars starts with an excellent introduction, followed by tons of poetry. Wherever possible, he left the Middle English alone - updating it enough to make it comprehensible to the casual reader, but preserving enough of the original vocabulary to give it a decided "other" feeling. Footnotes abound, clarifying changes in word meaning, defining words that are no longer used, or simply providing contextual understanding. Fleas, Flies and Friars is a wonderful bit of academic-light, making what could have been Heavy History an entertaining insight into the lives of medieval childhood.
I suppose I should start off with the fact that this is fiction based VERY loosely on historical figures and events; the story is made up, but the nam...moreI suppose I should start off with the fact that this is fiction based VERY loosely on historical figures and events; the story is made up, but the names are real. Considering how frequently I air my (occasionally annoying) thoughts pertaining to accuracy in details as they apply to persons, places, and events that were real, it will probably come as a surprise that - though Dunlap played fast and loose with her fiction and fact - it didn't really bother me. (Are you shocked? I was.) Maybe it is because her primary characters were people that I knew of but little about. She keeps the external historical details fairly accurate while making the events most intimate to the characters primarily fiction. That seemed to make it somehow okay. I was able to read the entire novel without feeling the need to flip to the back of the book or pull up google to fact-check, which is a testament to just how engrossing I found The Académie.
Dunlap's characters captured me and wouldn't let me go. The four young women central to the plot were all very honest, believable portrayals of young ladies of their time and in their positions. They were exceptionally well developed - vibrant and vital - and capable of creating strong emotions. Sadly, my primary emotions were dislike, disdain, and less frequently sympathy. I think it another testament to Dunlap's talent that the latter was even possible. Every time I would start to like a character, or think perhaps I had been too hard on them, they would do something so self-serving or cruel that I was right back at square one.
The Académie is written in a very intimate first person style that feels almost like diary entries, and alternates perspective between three of the four main characters. While reading their alternating views of events, I was constantly reminded of something a teacher once said, 'rarely does someone think they are the villain in their own story.' We switch between seeing the excuses for and the effects of each girl's actions, and it is enlightening in a horrifying sort of way. To see how cruelly something can be felt by someone, followed by what the other actually intended to happen was fascinating. Which is why, even though I really didn't like these girls, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them. This pulling closer to and pushing away from each of the characters with the change of narration also gave the girls' characters added depth that I didn't at first suspect. I don't think they would feel so terrible if they were not so real. Each time I was with a character, I sympathized with them, and could understand their actions if not condone them. (And to be truthful, Madeleine and Hortense weren't actually that bad until later in the book. I am also thankful that Dunlap never gave Caroline control of the narration - that is one head I do not want to be in.)
Overall I actually really liked The Académie, and thought it was very well done. I will definitely read other books by Dunlap, and think she is a skilled author. However, I do have one problem with The Académie - and it is a rather large one. Dunlap (per her Author's Note) purposely attempted to explore 18th century racism and the issue of slavery. She attempted to display it in all its ugliness, and then show how circumstances could change people's opinions, allowing 'shaded feelings' on the issues. She particularly tried to show this in the character of Eliza. While I greatly appreciate the attempt, I think she was unfortunately so successful in the first part of her aim that she utterly failed in the second. I did not get 'shaded feelings' from Eliza. Her behavior to the French servants early in the book was so cruel (and her thoughts about both the servants in France and the slaves at home so dismissive) that her turnabout toward African-American slaves at the end felt contrived and inauthentic to her character. Eliza's behavior with Madeleine felt believable insofar as she had already invested in Madeleine's humanity, and could not take it back. It has been repeatedly documented throughout history that exceptionally racist people can be adept at compartmentalizing those feelings - suspending them when confronted with a single individual they come to know while still maintaining them against a race as a whole. Nothing ever makes me think this is not the case with Eliza and Madeleine. (Nor does the actual life story of Eliza Monroe - as seen in a few hours of googling - ever betray hints of these conflicted feelings.)
Perhaps it is only a product of my own privilege (that of having education and experiences which allow me to not be racist) but I find the book's implications to be both insulting and patronizing. I strongly resent the idea that it takes being thrown into close proximity to or intimacy with an individual of another race (or sexual orientation, or sex, or gender, or (dis)ability, or religion, etc.) to recognize their humanity. (Or, conversely, that racism, sexism, etc. arise from a lack of experience with people who are different.) I call BS. Over and over again we see people who were 'products' of the very same times, situations and circumstances as racist individuals who, unlike their less open-minded peers, were instead quite aware of the inherent humanity of people different from themselves. (In counterpoint to Eliza - white, southern, and/or wealthy people who were abolitionists and members of the Underground Railroad.) There are people out there who can recognize the basic common humanity of us all - no matter in which society, time, or income class they lived. I think it sells humanity as a whole short to say that we must all be taught or forced to recognize this. Yes, a person who is merely self-absorbed may be made to see that they have been unintentionally or unknowingly cruel or racist, and will then change. (Oskar Schindler as he was portrayed in Schindler's List comes to mind.) However, people who are truly racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) are rarely going to shed those beliefs that simply. I willingly admit I could be wrong, and would welcome thoughts on the topic.(less)
To be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It...moreTo be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It is the kind of book that can affect you deeply if you let it, but the reaction is just as deeply personal. And, at this point, its awards and accolades allow it to speak for itself. It is clearly a beautifully written, well constructed book. There are two things, though, that Zusak does so incredibly well that I feel I have to mention them: his use of language and foreshadowing.
As Death began his narration, the very first thing that struck me was the words. In a book that is all about the power and importance of words, that shouldn't come as a surprise, but it did. Zusak talks about things--familiar things--in a completely different way than I am accustomed, and it changed the way I saw them. I have heard of people 'carrying' a memory of someone. However, when Death described Liesel's mother carrying the memory of her brother like a Werner-shaped bag slung over her shoulder, and that she occasionally had to drop him limbs flinging to the platform of the Bahnhof before slinging him back over the other shoulder, Zusak made the cliche so much more visceral--he made it something new. We can feel the weight of that memory, how unwieldy a burden it must be, the sheer exhaustion her mother must feel while carrying it, but she cannot put it down or leave it behind. One has baggage for a reason. Just like when Liesel's crying for her brother is described as "a gang of tears;" or a draft is described as the breeze of the Third Reich gaining strength, or Europe breathing; or perhaps when two grey-eyed men, father and son, disagreeing across a dinner table are described as "metallic eyes" clashing "like tin cans in the kitchen;" each of these instances pack so much more into the words than what is on the surface. The words are like tightly folded little notes that you must open before you get the full message. We can see the violence and the multitude of Liesel's tears in the word "gang." We feel the coolness of the air, the fear in the room, the smallness and helplessness that the people feel as the draft whips by. And we feel the sharpness, the uncomfortably loud emotional clanging of two like things meeting in discord. In someone else's hands this 552 page book could have been so much longer, and still not have said everything Zusak was able to communicate. His words burn, even in their multitude.
I was also greatly struck by something Death says about half way through the book:
I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. (p 243)
Here Death is being very disingenuous, because he is actually quite good at creating a mystery. Sure, we are given a few very big pieces of the story; we know how some things are going to end. History tells us how many things are going to end! But, as Death says himself at the end of that quote, the ending isn't really what is important. It reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings":
The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.
That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
The mystery, the beauty, of The Book Thief lies in the how and why. Even knowing some of the really big pieces, and picking up on the increasingly obvious foreshadowing, I was still left completely emotionally unprepared for how and why certain things occurred. Zusak is a true connoisseur.
The thing I think I most love about The Book Thief, though, comes back to language. Only this time it is Deutsch. It is almost impossible to get more than a couple of pages without a new German word or phrase being used or defined. Zusak never lets the reader forget that the characters about whom they are reading, for whom they now care, are Germans in Nazi Germany. He gives Germans back their voice, and, in doing so, fights a propaganda machine that has been chugging away continuously for over 100 years now with the same message: All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. That is not to say that we don't occasionally get movies or books about the everyday Germans who were doing good things, being heroes in both little and big ways, but they are often Anglicized. Aside from character or place names, all Deutsch is removed from the text. And, unless they are Nazis or Evil Geniuses (or in the case of Indiana Jones movies, both) their accents are crisply British or smoothly American. (Hence the reason that an atrocity such as Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg can occur!!! Breath, just breath.) We sometimes get so caught up in what the Nazis did, thought, were, etc., that we forget that to be German and to be a Nazi were vastly different things. Not all Nazis wore uniforms; and not everyone who wore a uniform was a Nazi--compulsory military service will do that. (And we get to see that with some of the characters.) I also love that Zusak says this of Max:
[H]e had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been. (p 159)
Taking his lead from famous Jews who would have been contemporaries of Max such as Gertrud Kolmar, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein or Katja Behrens, he shows that, at least for them, it was never a choice: They were German and Jewish.
Despite its Literary bent or all of the Big Things, Important Topics, or Issues addressed within, at the end of the day The Book Thief is really just a beautifully written story. A story about a young girl who learns the power of words in a difficult time; that "books and words...mean not just something, but everything." And it can make you believe that, too, if you let it.(less)