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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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon

I read this little story while traveling for a conference in Vermont a month ago and simply forgot to recount it in my little blog! I had just finished reading a book for work…Web Content Strategy (stimulating as you might imagine), and I was delighted to pick up something that seemed fictional and whimsical.

I borrowed this book from a co-worker and learned that the author, Mark Haddon, is a British writer who has written many children’s books. With that in mind, it was most fitting that the tale would be told from the perspective of a child. While you never know explicitly what kind of developmental issue the boy has, he seems to show characteristics of autism, from what I know about it.

The boy is telling the story and takes the approach of solving the mystery of a murder of a neighbor’s dog. With everything told according to his perspective, you must fill in the gaps of why things are the way they are. He shares about his hatred of certain colors and how their presence in daily life sometimes prevents him from moving forward. You learn about his father’s frustration with these quirks from the boy’s perspective, and it is both heartbreaking and enlightening.

The story turns dark when you learn about the complex relationships of the people around him, and I found myself cringing multiple times with pain for the boy and also sympathy for his father at times. I found myself wondering how I would respond as his father or mother, and how hard it must be to not be able to convey your thoughts in a way that others understand.

Ultimately, this was a very interesting read and thought-compelling. It reads quickly and offers a great deal of fodder for thought, particularly if you are someone who is interested in developmental disorders like autism and aspergers.

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

I started this book perhaps a year ago. I really liked it but got distracted and picked it up again fairly recently. It is interesting to me how much things relate in our world, so when I read the chapter about Columbine just weeks before the Aurora shooting, my brain made an eerie-feeling connection. But the existence of that connection and its relationship to epidemics in our world (think fashion trends, not Ebola) is precisely what The Tipping Point is all about.

Malcolm Gladwell seems to know how to write about all those things you wondered about but never really delved further into exploring. Like how deja vu works, or how Southern idiosyncrasies like saying “y’all” came to be denoted as such. He opens with a fashion example (hello female audience he has now ensnared!) — how is it that “trends” happen? Who gets to decide what is going to be the next big trend? And please tell me those horrible rompers are going away soon…

He compares trends like fashion to the spread of infectious disease, i.e. an epidemic. It is his theory that anything that becomes mainstream or widespread has a certain thing that happens (tipping point) to make it so. The book reads much like a psychology experiment (a VERY interesting one) and it really makes you think about why you act the way you do. It is frightening how much we follow the crowd. But you knew that.

One of the things I found most interesting was the way he described the parts of a tipping point epidemic, as if you could almost engineer one with the right steps and right people.

Overall, this was a highly interesting, intellectual read. I want to read his other books and to think more about the way we think and act as a society.

Read away – this one is a keeper!

Downton Abbey

ImageAfter five days of a miserable cold, there are few things I achieved on the old “to do” lists I am always keeping. However, one thing I did achieve is that I fell in love with a new story, the story of Downton Abbey. I am thankful to this story because it kept my mind distracted when I was down and out. There is nothing better than being wrapped up in a wonderful tale when you can’t do much else. So, i wanted to write a bit about it on the blog so that you might discover it as well, if you are interested in the subject matter.

Downton Abbey is a television series that comes to us by way of PBS (yay public broadcasting!). You can even watch full episodes on PBS for free. The best way I can explain Downton Abbey when I told some friends about the series is that it is basically a Pride and Prejudice style of tale enjoyed like you were actually reading the book versus in a two-hour film segment. The main differences, however, are that the series isn’t as much a love story-centric tale as Austen’s lauded work. To me, Downton Abbey is the story of a house through the ages and all that goes on within it.

The house is Biltmore on steroids — and having recently toured the Biltmore home, it was fascinating to see some of the very elements of the Vanderbilt’s home in live action in Downton Abbey. You follow the storylines of the main family that lives there, the lines of inheritance, the stories of the maids and servants, and of course the common theme of wedding daughters of a prestigious family such that they can live comfortable lives being provided for by men of means.

While some have called the series a glorified soap opera dressed up in Victorian clothing, I think it is more than that. It is a cultural study of its time and it is truly fascinating. Certainly there are melodrama moments, but that is what makes the storyline so insatiable. And, one of my favorite actors plays a leading role, Maggie Smith — and she is just exquisite.

If you haven’t seen any of the episodes, you can watch most of Season 1 on Netflix or Hulu and you can watch Season 2 on PBS. Enjoy!

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.

Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

I started this book in August and it has been a fabulous read. I knew it would be a big book to tackle, but it was absolutely worth it. Tom Wolfe is the ultimate scribe of American life, and in this book he pegs the fall of a Wall Street tycoon with such accuracy that, as a reader, you cannot help but feel the pain yourself as his life falls apart.

The book takes place during the stock market boom of the late 80s — I am not really sure — but it has a timeless quality to the story. As a reader, we follow the journey of Sherman McCoy, a wall street investment banker who has made it big — so big that he is consumed by his own vanity. An affair with another woman takes an unfortunate turn of events when the couple get lost in the Bronx in Sherman’s expensive Mercedes. Through a chain reaction, the car strikes a young black man and the two flee the scene — and thus the downfall is born.

I don’t want to give too much away as usual, but the title itself signals the idea that our protagonist will have a major downfall. I must say, even though Sherman’s character is depicted such that you are supposed to hate him, I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic for his plight. I think Wolfe balances this conflict so well, and the writing is just brilliant.

My favorite scene occurred when Sherman is arrested and taken through the process of being booked and submitted before he posts bail. It is the most painfully descriptive segment and I found myself literally cringing while I read the painful words. I think that was the moment of the Bonfire from which the book gets its name, and Sherman even refers to the ordeal as a death of sort.

Anyway, this is a wonderful, wonderful book. The writing is truly masterful, the story alluring, and the end iconically Wolfe. There are elements of racial tension, the corruption of the justice system, mastery of the personality of Wall Street bankers, millionaire housewives, and upper echelon living. I always feel when I read Wolfe’s books that he describes characters so perfectly, as if he were pulling the very descriptions out of my own mind. For example, he calls the millionaire housewives that have dieted and exercised their way into the required physical size “x-rays” — this is so true and dead on.

I still maintain that I am Charlotte Simmons is my favorite Wolfe book, but I do think this one runs a close second. I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

Pollock – Starring Ed Harris

Hello readers! I must apologize for being MIA lately  — I am reading a really long book, have moved, and have had a busy work season so I have certainly had less time to read. I will let you in on what I am reading…I am tackling another Tom Wolfe book, Bonfire of the Vanities. It is truly fabulous and I am a little over halfway at this point, cringing with each page because I can sense the plot before me and it just makes me squirm. And that is good writing! But who would expect anything less from Wolfe…

So I have still been watching movies here and there. Most recently, I watched the biopic called Pollock, starring Ed Harris. I was lucky enough to see a Pollock painting in person in May when visiting a dear friend in Houston and I only wish I had seen the film before or done my research so I would have appreciated it more. I have found that the older I get, the more I have grown to appreciate and become enamored by pieces of art. The walls on my home are bare because I refuse to fill them with anything but art that I have hand-selected, ideal original pieces, and even more ideally — supporting local artists.

That being said, I acknowledge I will have to compromise because I do still work for a nonprofit and all…

Anyway, the film was fabulous. Ed Harris is a wonderful actor, and I had most recently watched him play John Glenn in an adapted Tom Wolfe book (ironically), The Right Stuff. If you know nothing about Pollock and even if you are critical of him, suggesting that he just “threw paint on canvas,” this movie is for you. It will open your eyes to what art is, and how it is created. And it opened my oft-feminist notions to the brilliance of Jackson Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner — a FABULOUS painter I had never heard of whatsoever. Given, I have taken little to no art history courses and am new to the world of art critique…

All of that being said, this was a really wonderful movie. It sat in my Netflix queue for months, and on my coffee table for weeks, but when I finally watched it I was moved and inspired. I was even inspired to get creating things on my own — what a wonder it is to create, if even something as simple as an elegant meal, a letter to a friend, a stronger body through commitment to exercise. Anyway, I think that is what art is all about and what I got out of this film.

I will say, Pollock was certainly a troubled soul and his troubles eventually cost him his life at a younger age than the world hoped — who knows what he would have been able to achieve if he had conquered his alcoholism.

So, go watch this film! It is highly recommended!