Aware that I am a master gasbag, how do I summarize this incredible book in a paragraph or two? Quite simply, I cannot; all I can do for right now is scribble a few impressions.
There are a lot of books that have made me sad, and a handful of them have made me cry: Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of them, and The Book Thief is another. Despite foreshadowing by the book's narrator, Death, I was a wreck by book's end.
Death as narrator. Who better to tell a story that takes place inside Hitler's Germany? Death tells us, shortly after the Allies have bombed a place named Köln where five hundred were killed:
Five hundred souls.You see, not every German citizen was a card-carrying Nazi, or a hater of Jews, or any of the other monsters of the Third Reich. Liesel Meminger, the book thief, was not. Neither were her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, nor Max Vandenburg, the Jew the Hubermanns' hid in their basement, nor Rudy Steiner, Liesel's best friend whom she staunchly refused to kiss. These, and many other people like them, are the grist for Zusak's, and Death's, elegant, poetically-written mill.
I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I'd throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.
5 stars for this beautiful book.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie
This is a short book that focuses on two teenage boys who are sent by Mao Zedong for re-education during his Cultural Revolution to a remote mountain called Phoenix of the Sky. "Cultural" Revolution, my left big toe. Any book, Western or otherwise, that did not preach the Party line was burned by the Red Guard, shades of Bradbury's Farenheit 451.
This book isn't all about books, but books do play a large role when the boys find a cache of Western books (translated into Chinese) hidden by a third boy, a book-lover himself. (Not bad: I used "book five times in one sentence.)
The tomes, all famous classics, are suitably devoured by the boys and Luo, one of the two and the only character in this story who has a given name, decides to read his favorite author, Balzac, to his girlfriend, the Little Seamstress. She, too, is enthralled by learning of faraway places and people she had never dreamed of.
Ultimately, these volumes have a life changing affect on all three—the un-named narrator; Luo; and the Little Seamstress. The climax of the story comes at the very end of the book with no denouement, which gave me plenty of time to ruminate once I closed the back cover.
There is a lot to like about this book: the characters, life in provincial China, life itself, and for me, the amazing array of flora that grew on the mountain. I agree there was humor, but I never found anything remotely hilarious as the Los Angeles Times claims on the book's cover.
Nevertheless, it deserves 4½ stars.