The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Seven.

You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die.  You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come.  You brought it into the room.  The table could smell it on your breath.  The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset.  He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven – the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you.  It lands.  It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

Just bad luck.

That’s what you say.

Of no consequence.

That’s what you make yourself believe – because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come.  You hide a Jew.  You pay.  Somehow or other, you must.

I saw The Book Thief first when I was in England, staying in London with my family over New Year’s, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted it or not (I wish I’d bought it then because it would have been more expensive BUT it had a nice cover and was hardback), so I picked it up and glanced at it, and something the sales person said led me to believe it was in translation.  So since I didn’t really have any spare money for a book that might not be good and was in translation anyway, and since I definitely didn’t have any spare space in my luggage, I didn’t get it.

What with one thing and another I checked it out of the library this past summer and read it almost all in one go, lying on my couch at home.  It made me cry.  So I didn’t read it again, and I didn’t buy it, and by the time I noticed that I was pining for it, it was too late and the Official Christmas Buying Embargo was on, and when I didn’t get it for Christmas (I got many other things though!), I went round to Bongs & Noodles and bought it with my Christmas gift card money.

(Yay!)

Seriously, honestly, this book is as good as you’ve heard.  It is one of the best books I have ever read.  Markus Zusak, yay for you.  It’s about a little German girl who steals books and has a foster family and hides a Jew in her basement.  And yes, okay, the book is narrated by Death, and I know that might not be a draw for some people, but this book is just gorgeously written, and it’s extremely moving, and I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

But sad.  So if you have serious objections to bits of story that involve dead children and mums crying about it, and if those objections are serious enough that you actually cannot see past them, then okay, this book might not be for you.  For everyone else in the whole world though.  Yup.  Damn good book.  It made me cry, and although I tear up extremely easily, it is a much better trick to make actual tears actually fall out of my eyes, which is what The Book Thief has done both times I’ve read it.

Although I ordinarily cannot deal with Holocaust books at all, which I know this officially isn’t one of, but it kind of is.  And still I liked The Book Thief a lot.

Forever Rose, Hilary McKay

They are turning into the sort of people I used to call Grown Up and I cannot stop them although I would if I could. I would slow them down anyway. Sometimes I want to shout “Wait for me! Wait for me!”

Like I did when I was little and they walked too fast.

They always turned back then, however much of a hurry they were in, but I do not think they can turn back now.

So I do understand.

Oh, excellent book! Even though it made me a little sad, because it is the last in the series, and because Rose is sad and lonely for a tremendous portion of Forever Rose, and probably because I am growing up much too fast myself and graduating frighteningly from college quite soon.

However.

It is my considered opinion that Hilary McKay should be much more popular in America than indeed she is, because her books are really charming and clever and funny and friendly. I stumbled on Saffy’s Angel while nosing around Amazon trying to find another smallish book to get my mother for Christmas, and I can really only shake my head in amazement at my good fortune, because the library had it (so I checked it out and screened it), and the bookshop had it (so I bought it and wrapped it and gave it to Mumsy), and then there were four more, eventually. Four. That’s lucky.

Forever Rose starts out sad. Everyone is gone. Caddy is gone and won’t say what happened to Michael, and Indigo has a job, and Saffron has lots of classes, and Tom is in New York and Eve is in her shed and Bill is in London and Michael is back in town and won’t look at Rose when he sees her in the street. That makes me sad just to contemplate. (Michael’s last name, incidentally, is Cadogen. Who knew?) Besides which her teacher is canceling Christmas and David is having a Crisis and her boring friend Molly has a mysterious idea she won’t tell anyone about.

But I liked it a lot, even if the ending was just the tiniest teeny bit too neat (ha, literally), because I like happy endings particularly when they are the endings of friendly books like these ones about the Cassons. And of course I will always read it again. Probably out loud to my future children.

I must also say that this book came to me via a very long and circuitous system of transport of my aunt and uncle’s friends. My aunt Gina, who is good at getting things, arranged for someone in England to buy Forever Rose (it not being out yet in America), and that person brought it to New York and handed it off to someone else and they handed it off to someone else and then to someone else and finally back to Gina. And then me. For Christmas. That’s a lot of labor, and I was much less inventive when helping my father buy it for my mother.

P.S. My mother says that if Forever Rose had not already been wrapped when it reached her, she would have read it. That made me feel much less guilty about reading the copy that I ordered for Daddy to give her, so I confessed all. I had been feeling quite guilty about it actually, but I had to, because it was right there, in my room, so eminently desirable, and I didn’t think I’d be getting it for Christmas myself! and normally I only read books I’m giving as gifts to Indie Sister or my very clever friend because I know they do the same with gifts to me and it’s fine, but I simply could not resist.

SPOILER

NO, REALLY

I knew she was preggers!

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

I have argued with myself long and hard before giving this a “favored authors” category, because actually I don’t like C.S. Lewis as a person. I do not favor him at all. I think he was a bit of a sexist jerk, and the reason I don’t read the Chronicles of Narnia more often is that I think C.S. Lewis is a jerk and I’m always saying to myself, Well why would I want to read the books of such a jerk? And then, of course, since I’ve been reading the Narnia books since I was three (I mean, I was read to at that point), I do fairly inevitably pick them up again, and then I’m reminded of how much I completely love those books.

I reread Dawn Treader on the way to Atlanta, mainly because I was trying to decide what bits would have to be cut for the film (the slave trade bits, I decided – it’s a good part of the book but you don’t absolutely need it, and it would take up lots of time), and I just loved it. It’s not my favorite (I like The Horse and His Boy), but it is a mighty good book. I have always felt a little sad about Eustace being really a metaphor for St. Paul (I cheer myself up by assuring myself that, redemption being a common theme in literature, Eustace is not so much a retelling of St. Paul so much as an archetype), but still, the book is wonderful. I love best the Dufflepuds and Reepicheep wanting to take on a dragon singlehanded and playing chess as if he were the chess pieces doing bold and valiant things, and the dark island is very cool and haunting.

I suppose if I wanted to be critical, I might say that the episodic nature of the book makes things a little jerky, and it does to some extent, but I don’t think it’s a big deal, and mostly everything works out beautifully. It’s episodic, but the episodes are excellent.

I also have to say here that I reread Matilda at my grandmother’s house, and you know, Matilda says that she loves C.S. Lewis “but he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books”, which Miss Honey agrees with. I mean – well, I can only conclude that Roald Dahl hadn’t read all of the Chronicles of Narnia, because he could never have said that if he had. Honestly, I don’t see how any living person could fail to think Lazaraleen, for instance, was funny (I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head reading Lazaraleen), and there’s just no way that the Dufflepuds aren’t funny. I was reading this book on the way back from my grandfather’s funeral, and I was so tired I was hardly functional and I kept forgetting words like “impressed”, and still the Dufflepuds made me laugh so hard I cried. Particularly this bit, which contains (I’ve helpfully bolded it) what may be my favorite line in all of literature:

“And we’re extremely regrettable,” said the Chief Monopod, “that we can’t give you the pleasure of seeing us as we were before we were uglified, for you wouldn’t believe the difference, and that’s the truth, for there’s no denying we’re mortal ugly now, so we won’t deceive you.”

“Eh, that we are, Chief, that we are,” echoed the others, bouncing like so many toy balloons. “You’ve said it, you’ve said it.”

“But I don’t think you are at all,” said Lucy, shouting to make herself heard. “I think you look very nice.”

“Hear her, hear her,” said the Monopods. “True for you, Missie. Very nice we look. Couldn’t find a handsomer lot.” They said this without any surprise and did not seem to notice that they had changed their minds.

“She’s a-saying,” remarked the Chief Monopod, “as how we looked very nice before we were uglified.”

“True for you, Chief, true for you,” chanted the others. “That’s what she says. We heard her ourselves.”

“I did not,” bawled Lucy. “I said you’re very nice now.”

“So she did, so she did,” said the Chief Monopod, “said we was very nice then.”

“Hear ’em both, hear ’em both,” said the Monopods. “There’s a pair for you. Always right. They couldn’t have put it better.”

“But we’re saying just the opposite,” said Lucy, stamping her foot with impatience.

“So you are, to be sure, so you are,” said the Monopods. “Nothing like an opposite. Keep it up, both of you.”

“You’re enough to drive anyone mad,” said Lucy, and gave it up.

Hahahahaha. That is comic genius. Matilda is absurd, and so is Miss Honey, even though she has my same name and actually I love her and Matilda both, so I’m going to go ahead and blame this on Roald Dahl instead.

C.S. Lewis and his lovely clear prose. I am appreciating it more and more as I get older and read people like Judith Butler (for God’s sake). Clear prose. That’s what we all need. Nice, clear prose. What are they teaching in these schools anyway?

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

Ah, yes, The Charioteer. By the matchless Mary Renault, my love for whom cannot be expressed in strong enough terms, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, which I read as a kid and have never stopped loving. The Charioteer is one of her earlier novels, set more in modern times (World War II), at an army hospital as it happens.

Basically the main character, Laurie (called Spud because his last name’s Odell, bless him) is wounded at Dunkirk and falls madly in love with a conscientious objector who is an orderly at his army hospital. And their chaste romance continues apace, because Laurie nobly fears that he will ruin everything for innocent Andrew if he tells him about homosexuality. I am not a big fan of Andrew’s, to be honest, because he gets all noble and offended about everything, which makes me tired, and plus it crushes me when Laurie’s all tense and snappy due to unrequited love. So meanwhile he is reunited with this guy he admired when they were in school together, before the guy got expelled for being a big gay, and they get along gorgeously and Ralph is rather sweetly gallant. P.S. I like Ralph better than Andrew, and if I were Laurie, I’d be like, Huh, now with Ralph I have a future that contains good conversations, good sex, and no hiding shit, whereas with Andrew it’s just the good conversations and endless mental torture, and the decision would be easy, but Laurie spends a lot of time agonizing over it.

I can’t explain what makes this book so appealing to me. One thing is that they really do have good conversations. Mary Renault writes these beautiful dialogue sequences that are just impossibly eloquent with the things they’re saying and the things they’re not saying. I go green with envy reading it because I will never, ever be able to pack that much meaning and intensity into a line of dialogue, ever. And overall, it’s just such an understated and melancholy book, and I really do like Ralph an awful lot. He’s such a dear and he loves Laurie so much.

I will add this caveat: There’s a fair bit of unpleasantness with the more effeminate gay characters. They all have idiotic names like Bim and Toto and Bunny, and they are all gossipy bitchy people trying to screw up everyone else’s lives by telling lies and reading diaries and making half-assed manipulative suicide attempts. Not very nice in Mary Renault and not incredibly defensible even though she was writing about people that actually existed in a certain environment to which she had been recently, and to her detriment, exposed.