The Book Thief: Marcus Zusak

I actually read another book before this one that I have been meaning to blog about, but after staying up late to finish The Book Thief, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I knew I had to write about this one first.

On the back cover of the book, reviews promised that reading this book was one of those life-changing experiences that only a powerful story can achieve. I flipped to the first page with great reverence but skepticism — and I can assure you that upon closing it for the last time last night, I agreed. I am not sure how it will impact my life directly, but it certainly opened a new part of my heart and mind to the vast tragedy of Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. While I have read Anne Frank’s diary, Night by Elie Wiesel, and have visited the children’s Holocaust museum — nothing compared to this experience. It was so different and so consuming. It also made me think of all of the ways those lives lost could have changed the world — looking to Greenville’s own example with Max Heller. Max was a Jew who fled Austria just before the Holocaust began and settled in Greenville. He is the father of our town and as mayor, orchestrated the incredibly revitalization and vibrancy that we experience today. He died two years ago but has been memorialized in our community. Six million people, truly?

You see, The Book Thief is narrated by Death. That is established immediately, when Death describes the gathering of souls that occurred during World War 2 within the first few pages. Death is telling the story of The Book Thief, a young German girl who is sent to live with foster parents due to her mother’s poverty. The girl steals books, and though that may sound odd, it is a most poetic thing that the book reveals.

As crazy as it sounds, I never thought about the perspective of the Germans who did not align with the propaganda of the Nazi party, who protected the Jews and sympathized with them — who cowered in basements during air raids and dropped bread crumbs for the Jews marching to Dachau. The Book Thief is one such German.

I don’t want to share too much, but I do want to say that the book is organized non-conventionally and extremely creatively — you will know what I mean when you read it. The ending is horribly sad with a glimmer of hope, and you will cry. But it is wonderful and beautiful — filled with bravery and love, human compassion beyond measure.

Read this book. Just do it.

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Sarah’s Key – Tatiana De Rosnay

With the excitement of an impending break, I joyously fought the holiday traffic to visit Barnes and Noble for my perfect Christmas read. I was looking for a gripping story, and one that could be conquered in just a few days of reading. As I was scanning all of the titles, I came across one that seemed familiar. I remembered that I had actually seen the preview for the film adaptation a few months ago and had been absolutely curious about what the “key” was for — although apparently not curious enough to actually go see the movie…

Sarah’s Key is a wonderful story that tells two stories at first, alternating between the two in each chapter. One is in present day, and the other is a third person perspective of a fairly unknown historical event — when the French police rounded up all the Jews in Paris during the Holocaust, including children. This event was important because the Nazis had not yet mandated children be included in the round ups — to them, it was too obvious that their intentions involved extermination if young children were sent to “work camps.” So, the fact that the French police did this on their own was very significant, and a dark history that many people do not know about.

(Now, the book does be sure to state that the story itself is fiction, but that it is based on real accounts. So that is just something to keep in mind when/if you read it.)

The alternating chapters initially seem unrelated, as we learn about Sarah’s journey during the roundup and then the modern day journey of our main character, journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia receives an assignment form her editor to research the round up (Vel’ d’ Hiv) in preparation for its anniversary. Through her research, our two stories become linked — in more ways than you will expect.

This story was wonderful — I was completely absorbed and the suspense of finding out one secret after another was fascinating. It also whet my desire to read more about the Holocaust. I plan to read The Book Thief next, a book lent to me that is also about that time of our world’s dark history. I will say, the ending was not entirely believable and I was somewhat disappointed after the momentum gained in the early to middle chapters. I would definitely still recommend it is an interesting read and look forward to seeing the film.

Atlas Shrugged – Part 1 — The movie

While perusing new releases on Netflix a week or so ago, I noticed that there was a release of Atlas Shrugged. I was completely surprised because I never heard of it being released in the theatres, etc. etc. The only thing I heard was that there was the possibility of a movie, and that Angelina Jolie was up for Dagny Taggert. At any rate, this discovery was quite exciting and I immediately placed it at the top of my queue.

The film’s entire cast are considered “unknowns” and the film itself was extremely low budget. Which explains why I knew nothing about it… I did recognize one character from Friends (Ross and Monica’s mother) and another from Mad Men. While the DVD was loading, I did a little review reading and was intrigued by how supportive folks were of the film, despite its low budget style and unknown credits. I think that people were so desperate to see it on screen that any form would have pleased them.

You may guess at this point that I was not impressed with the film. However, the story speaks so strongly that even mediocre acting and embarrassing visual effects cannot squelch its power. And maybe that is what those posting reviews also saw. Watching the film brought back the story — and the story is solid.

The things that really stood out as bad include the portrayal of John Gault — it is hokey at best. Dagny is not quite right with an imbalance between the sexy portrayal and the plain, rigid businesswoman with too much on the “sexy” side. I didn’t picture her as glamourous as the character in this film. Also, Hank Rearden was sleazy ¬†— I envisioned a Jon Hamm-like character with a natural charisma. Not an actor with a fake tan and hair with too much product in it.

Now, this was just Part 1 — so maybe they will have more money for Parts 2 and 3 and mysteriously eradicate some subpar actors. But, I will admit, I was captivated the entire time. Atlas Shrugged is a captivating story and it was enjoyable to remember the details of the story that I had forgotten. So, if you have read the book and are dying to see a film version, go ahead and see this one. You will be disappointed, but overall it will be a good experience.

Game Change – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

As primary season kicks into high gear and 2012 is just a few months away, reading Game Change, a book about the 2008 election, could not have been a more timely decision. I had been told by folks who have read it before me that it might change my opinion of the way the election went and in ways it certainly did. This book was compiled through numerous lengthy interviews by the two authors who are really more like journalists — although it certainly reads like a novel.

Game Change covers the entire spectrum — from the first seeds of thought in Obama’s mind of running for President to Rudy Giuliani’s rise and fall, to Hillary and Bill’s complex journey, to John Edwards’ scandals, to John McCain’s ebbs and flows, and finally the making of Sarah Palin.

The book literally captures every moment in a dazzling array of perspectives from patriotism to egotism to the truly brutal tendencies of human nature when cornered. It will make you lose respect and leave you disappointed in whoever you might have put on a pedestal in 2008’s cast of characters. I think that is the taste in my mouth that I was most surprised to encounter. ¬†Both sides were guilty of dirty politics and a lack of integrity. I know that is something we are supposed to expect as voters and citizens, but I can’t help upholding the naive perspective that maybe it will be different this time…

All of that being said, the book is a must read in my opinion. You need to know what happened in 2008 as we prepare for 2012. The book really helps to contextualize how the falling economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan molded the election, something that will again be important in 2012 as we face a potential double dip recession and wars still being fought in the Middle East. I think the best way to be a good citizen and voter is to be informed and this book certainly is a good way to do it. For the Republicans, you will be able to more accurately assess what qualities will succeed in your candidate in 2012 and for the Democrats, you will see how you can support your party and your campaign by learning the weaknesses the Obama campaign revealed in the book.

I think one thing that really took me aback was how much Sarah Palin has transformed since she was tapped to be the veep candidate just one week before the Republican National Convention. According to the book, at the time she didn’t know what the Fed was, thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and shriveled under the scrutiny of Katie Couric and a debate with Joe Biden. And look at her now — it is an amazing difference.

All in all, this was a fascinating read. I have no idea how accurate the accounts are and I know people on both sides of the political spectrum take issue with it — but I think it is a crucial read for Americans, particularly with the weight of 2012 on our shoulders.

Bossypants – Tina Fey

I picked up this book for several reasons. For one, I love Tina Fey — I think she is brilliant as a writer, an actress, and a human being. For two, she is a strong woman who has taken a male-dominated field by storm. And three– Tina Fey is hilarious.

Her book is an often-rambling, loosely themed tale of how she is “Bossypants” and how she has been able to break through various glass ceilings to achieve such great success in her career. The book is funny and really easy to put down and pick up without trying to remember what has happened in the plot. It is less chronological than it is “provisional” — I made that term up to mean that she offers background to explain something that is the way it is today rather than just going through the milestones of her life in order. Make sense?

At any rate, I really enjoyed getting insights into what life is like behind the scenes of creating a Saturday Night Live production and also the tale behind Tina Fey’s now infamous Sarah Palin impressions. I also laughed out loud at least 30 times from the various things she writes about or allusions she makes to things I certainly could relate to in my own life.

But I think the thing that really charmed me about the book was the lovably honest, self-deprecating, and human qualities that Fey lays out for all to read. She is not an untouchable celebrity who looks perfect and sets out to have everyone believe that her life is equally perfect. She is honest about her struggles with self-image, her obstacles in the field of comedy with testosterone-driven personalities, and her struggles with balancing being a mother/wife and the producer/director of 30 Rock. Her book makes you like her, relate to her, and feel like if you met her she would treat you like a person and maybe even be your friend (crossing my fingers here).

Now, it wasn’t any great work of literature or a profound story — but it was a great read and if you like Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin, or, well…laughing…you should read it, too.

“Decision Points” – George W. Bush

Regardless of what box you check when you go to the polls, memoirs by presidents should be read by everyone. They expose the daily challenges of the office of President, the human reality of facing the stress and pressure of the job, and offer a unique perspective on the major issues of a presidency. That being said, I really enjoyed reading “Decision Points” by President George W. Bush.

W arranges his book around the major “decisions” he had to make during his eight years as president. It is not chronological and I think that enabled him to be more creative in the way he explained his choices and policies to readers. I started this book right after Christmas and though it took me a while to finish, I think it is a fascinating read. Each chapter/decision reads as its own separate tale, so the fact that it took me so long to finish was not as big of a deal as it can be when reading a novel.

When I stopped to ponder the book after I closed it for the last time, the thing that resonated with me the most is the chapter on 9/11. I would encourage anyone who is doubtful about the book to read that chapter first. It is powerful, you will cry, and it will take you back to where you were the day of the terrorist attacks. Reading about W’s emotions, decisions, and pain (he is quite open about that experience) left me speechless and thankful for our leadership that has prevented an attack like that from happening again.

I also enjoyed getting a glimpse into the President’s personal struggles that he is quite open about. He is open about his battle with alcohol and his decision to give it up forever, his relationship with his father — they did disagree on policy several times, and what life was like in the White House during his administration. I loved reading about the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and what the energy is like in that room. I also loved reading the way he described the emotions of all of his decisions. Even reading about his last day in the White House and his last walk with the dog gave a glimpse into the emotions of leaving office, something I had not really thought about.

The last “decision” W talks about involves the beginnings of our economic crisis. Perhaps because I was a senior in college or maybe because I was in denial and didn’t want to listen to what was happening, I had never really understood all of the details that led to the beginning of the recession. This chapter really explains the situation well, in lamens terms, and the decisions The Fed had to make to curb what Ben Bernanke feared and deemed a real possibility, a second Great Depression.

Anyway, I would definitely recommend this book — to my Republican friends, to my Democrat friends, to my friends who don’t really know where they stand — you should all read it. It will offer incredible insight into what the leader of our country was thinking for eight years of your life.

“Fair Game” – Valerie Plame Wilson

I finished this book a bit ago but have been busy lately with less time for blogging! I suppose it is a good thing to not have enough time to sit on the computer, but I do miss having regular posts. My apologies to those who have found this blog stale for a bit, I am hoping to get more time over the holidays to knock off some of the books I have been itching to read.

That being said, I picked up this book in the $5 bin at Barnes and Noble. Having once been quite interested in journalism and having taken a Constitutional Law class that studied the court case involved with the story, I was already interested in Valerie Plame Wilson’s life.

We studied her story from a variety of perspectives when I was in college. In my journalism classes, we talked about the issue journalists have faced regarding the pressure to release anonymous sources and whether they should have a protected right to keep them secret. In my political science classes, we talked about the associated ethical dilemmas and the way the release of Wilson’s identity was used politically to squelch objections to entering war against Iraq.

With that background in mind and the previews I saw for the film adaptation of Wilson’s story starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn (which sadly never came to my city so I could see it), I picked up this $5 book to see what she had to say. The book is written in memoir style and since Wilson was an undercover CIA operative, she had to submit it to a review board to determine what could be published and what needed to be redacted. To explain a bit further, the CIA holds the rights to redact (the blacked out portions of documents) anything they deem to contain sensitive information and might endanger our national security. A large portion of Wilson’s book is redacted, making for frustrating reading at times because there are many questions left unanswered.

Before this gets too long, let me explain her story a bit to those of you who might be unfamiliar. Now, the book is totally from her perspective and that is where most of my recent information derives–you are welcome to do your own research to get both sides of the story. Essentially, Wilson was a CIA operative working specifically on intelligence involving potential weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Iraq in particular. She was married to Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador to Africa and other areas. When the government was in high alert on the search to find WMDs, Joe Wilson was sent to Africa to determine if materials there were being traded with Iraq to create nuclear weapons. He found that there were no signs of such trade.

After Joe Wilson returned with the answer that the US government was not looking for, he wrote an op-ed entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” In response, an article was written by Washington Post writer Robert Novak that leaked Valerie’s name as an undercover CIA operative. Over time, it was found that the leak was most likely initiated by the Cheney administration–specifically, Chief of Staff Scooter Libby. In the case following, Libby was never charged with releasing her name though he was charged with obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury. He was fined $250,000 and sentenced to 30 months in prison and probation. However, President Bush commuted his sentence, removing the jail term.

As with any story that threatens the integrity of the highest office of government, there are numerous complications and twists and turns. Valerie certainly has her side of the story which you can read about in her book or her husband’s. She ultimately blames Vice President Cheney for the leak and will not rest until he faces punishment (which will never happen). She says in her book that her office in the CIA and her husband’s work in Africa proved that there was no reason to enter into war with Iraq on the grounds of suspected WMDs and that this position made her a threat to Cheney’s intentions there. However, I am told that Karl Rove addresses the issue from an entirely different perspective in his memoir, Courage and Consequence, that would certainly be an interesting read as a foil to Wilson’s.

Of course, we will most likely never know the facts. Depending on your political beliefs, I am certain that your opinion will be quite different from the Republican or Democrat you know. Wilson’s memoir was not very well-written, she is not a writer after all, but it does give a strong sense of what it must have felt like to see your identity in national news when you are a covert CIA operative. If you are interested in her story, I would recommend the book–but to my very conservative friends, you might not like it so much…