Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reviews: Hitler's Germany, Mao's China

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

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.
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
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.

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.


Wandering Coyote said...

I've been eyeing that Balzac book for a long time now. Thanks for the review! I need to go see if my library has a copy.

Mary Witzl said...

I started reading The Book Thief just before we left Scotland, and someone went and took it from me! I've heard such good things about it; I will definitely read it now.

When I lived in Japan, initially, I talked to a lot of Chinese students, whose Japanese was imperfect, like mine (though much less so). All of them were insane about books and could not get over their good fortune at having so many at their disposal, in Japan -- books they could never have gotten in China. It was sweet: books meant far more to them than food or other commodities. I'll never forget that. It made me realize how lucky I was to be able to get hold of virtually any book I wanted.

Koolio said...

Great post, Charlie. I, however, cannot read sad books. I was upset over Edward leaving Bella in the second book in the Twilight series, how would I ever get through The Book Thief?!

PI said...

That was well timed. I did a post on choosing books for my birthday and Kim suggested I popped over. I now have a great list and will happily add 'The Book Thief' to it Thank you!

Charlie said...

I apologize to everyone for my slowness (slowity?) commenting on your comments.

WC: I'm glad that my rather uninformative review peaked your interest. It is a popular book, so I suspect your library has a copy or two.

MARY: Hah! A book thief stole your copy of The Book Thief! How rude.

Books and dictatorships do not mix--unless they glorify the party line. I remember the excellent Reading Lolita in Tehran and how a few young college women risked their lives to read and study Western novels in the home of their former Professor.

KOOL: A good cry is good for the soul, and it will take your mind off your unmindful dogs.

PI: Thank you for "stopping round", and I'll thank Kim for sending you. I always read your comments on Kim's blog, so maybe this is a way for us to get acquainted.

Koolio said...

Charlie, those dogs have given me enough of a good cry, must I read books that will do that to me too?!

And by the way, the new dog is behaving a little better every day. :)