I buy books. And sometimes I read them. This blog is for the times when I do more than just store shelf candy.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Flipped the Pages of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

ISBN: 0-375-83100-2
556 pages
My copy
Bought: September 22, 2008 from National Book Store, SM Manila for PhP200
Read: January 2009

Markus Zusak couldn't quite make up his mind if he wanted this novel to be a heart tugging tearjerker or a charming piece of whimsy. So he did both. Alternately.

When it's being whimsical, the reader awwws and ooohs and aaahs and falls in love with Liesel Meminger, feisty, kindhearted, intelligent, and funny. The relationship between her and golden haired Rudy Steiner has got to be the best love story I've ever encountered in a long time, maybe ever.

When it's tugging at your heart, it makes you despise war and prejudice while being awed by how pure goodness can happen against a backdrop of evil. Your heart breaks at the losses and shame Liesel has to deal with.

Her being of Aryan descent saves her from an acid shower, but doesn't spare her the terrors of war and an evil rule. At the start of the novel, Liesel loses her brother (by death) and her mother (by disappearance). Her foster parents, who live in the poor side of town, subsist on very little but manage to lavish her with love. Mr. Hubermann's love is more obvious, softer than Mrs. Hubermann's brash, savage affection, which frankly borders on abusive.

The appearance of Jewish Max Vanderburg spikes their lives with drama and danger, but also knits their family closer, brings out the good in Mrs. Hubermann, and intensifies Liesel's love for books.

Books--one of the elements that make this story even more appealing. The lengths that Liesel goes through to steal books, her fascination with the Mayor's library, the power of words channeled by Max Vanderburg as he tells his own story--I can relate. Zusak cannot fail but endear himself with the book nuts who read this.

All the events are narrated by Death. Cheeky. Sarcastic. Tortured. Death without the scythe. Warm. Compassionate. He's just doing his job.

Zusak uses bullet points and asides as a helpful devise to add meaning to the story. Sometimes the writing borders on gimmicky. Some parts are predictable.

Much of its predictability is also intentional. Zusak is his own worst spoiler. He shifts from the linear flow and goes fast forward to the future to warn you of pending doom. So you brace yourself for the worst. And when the worst does come, Zusak delivers the drama tersely, quickly. And just as your eyes brim with tears, he shifts his tone and gets charming and funny again. So if there's anything that I hate about the book, it's that I never get to a full 5-hanky bawl. And I so wanted to cry. I want my money back.

Okay, I didn't get my money's worth of tear duct purgation. Nevertheless, I loved The Book Thief. If the author was pandering to my sentimentality, well, it worked. This is fine story telling. This is a young adult book that adults can appreciate. It's hard to pick up another novel after reading this as visions of the book thief still lingers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Let's do a Covey and start with the end in sight. (Yes, I know that is a paraphrase.) This has got to be the most frustratingly perplexing ending I've ever had the displeasure of reading, and not in an I-am-so-intrigued-and-delightfully-mystified-I’ve-got-to-buy-the-sequel kind of way, but in a head-scratching, what-the-fafaya-was-that-all-about way.

The start and the middle were not all that satisfying either. According to Wikipedia, Bellow’s style tends to be brooding, and this particular novel is a broodfestmania.

It is set in late 70s Bucharest. Post-earthquake, communist-ruled, dictator-led, impoverished Rumania. Not exactly party central. Dean Albert Corde is there to accompany his wife to deal with the impending death of her mother. He spends a lot of time sitting in his wife's childhood bedroom. Ruminating. A whole lot of ruminating. I guess there’s nothing else to do. His mind travels back and forth between Bucharest and Chicago. In Chicago, he has suddenly become a social and academic pariah because of a controversial article he wrote. He replays the events in his mind and contemplates his past motivations and his inclinations for the future. In Bucharest, he encounters the workings of a totalitarian regime and he criticizes and scrutinizes . All in his mind. He doesn’t really do anything much with his thoughts. In Bucharest, he doesn’t do anything to resolve his righteous anger and defy the authorities. Back in Chicago, he doesn’t even put up a fight for his post.

Though the narration is by a third person, the perspective is that of Dean Corde. And because Corde mostly just sits and ruminates, the plot moves at an excruciating crawl. Each progression of event is merely used as a jumping point to recall and reflect on past events. Yes, more brooding. If you delete all his introspection and retain only the narrative, you would be left with a very thin book.

Once in a while, he turns his attention to the cyclamens in bloom, seeing them as symbols for his state of mind and life. But the symbolic meanings can get too obtuse for the non-horticulturist reader.

Is it all that bad? When I managed to keep myself awake, I did spot some good writing, good turns of words and phrases. I liked his descriptives. Probably the most entertaining parts of the book. More like commentaries really.

“This heavy woman, and pale, eyes large and dark - - she was as intelligent as she was stout. Her hair, parted evenly down the center in two symmetrical waves, suggested that the fundamental method of her character was to balance everything out, and that she kept a mysterious, ingenious equilibrium, her fat figure and her balanced thoughts being counterparts. “

Also entertaining are some of the little stories Dean Corde encounters as a journalist. His fictional accounts of a ghastly rape, of rats and corpses in the trenches, are so dark; I think to myself, “How can Bellows think up fiction this vile?”

Mildly amusing is his nightmarish experience at the crematorium. He sweats through his coat in the middle of a harshly cold winter.

Bellows won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature years before he wrote The Dean’s December. And his writing showcases (shows off?) his intellectual chops. This is a book that cannot be read in isolation or ignorance of other books. Bellow litters the novel with allusions to other literary works, historical events, and philosophical ideas that the author assumes his reader knows. Huh! He didn't account for some fluffhead like me reading this.

I would still like to give Bellows another chance if I find another one of his books. Hopefully, pre-Nobel, and not something as slow, introspective, and repetitious as this.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Big 8 of 2008 -- The Year of Living Leisurely

The Lady of Leisure tag I have assigned to myself has always been meant in jest, or maybe as wishful thinking. In truth, the need for monthly salon trips and the propensity to stuff my shelves with books have compelled me to get out there and hustle for money. Also, the Proverbs 31 woman I aspire to be is not one to be idle.

But still, this year I did become a Lady of Leisure.

It must be a testament to the power of the word. I discovered that if you say something often enough, it becomes a reality.

My 2008, indeed, is the year of living leisurely. This year, I handled my career as if they were hobbies and attacked my hobbies as if they were my career. I learned that the art of doing nothing is not about slothful loafing, but about doing things with hardly any effort because they're fun and they feed the soul. Okay, I was lazy too. And stepping on breaks because of fear of making mistakes. And being true to my procrastinating nature, I kept a lot of plans and dreams in the back burner. I took it easy. I worked hard at having fun. In that respect, I was successful in my efforts, because I had more fun than is legally allowed.

I read 53 books in 2008. And it feels to me that that was my only major accomplishment. Well, what's the rush? I can relax now, I've already passed the deadline for the TOYM. And Grandma Moses remains an inspiration for starting late.

Anyway, enough preamble. This is the requisite year-end recap of the big things that happened to me in the year that was.

In no particular order:

1) Big Island Hopping - 2008 started with me flying off to the islands of the US for a wedding. In the 3rd quarter of the year, Hubbaluvvah and I were swinging our heads very fast watching formula 1 cars zip through the streets of Singapore. For somebody who this year earned what other people would find insufficient to buy a pu
rse, I was able to magically find the resources to travel. And shop. Thanks to God, generous relatives, and well-timed training gigs, I was able to hop across the big ponds.

2) Bye Bye, Onie - Probably the only sad note of the year. Surprisingly though, our first Christmas and New Year without daddy were not as morose as I thought they would be. I think it is because of a reassurance that dad is in a much better, happier, pa
inless place. Once in a while, I feel the pang of his absence and ache for him to be there, but it is followed by a peace that transcends understanding.

3) Blogerella - I have been blogging since 1999, back when the word blog was not even in my vocabulary. It was a way of scratching an itch to write, just write, just pound on keyboard any leftover angst not yet fully processed in pity parties equipped with copious amounts of alcohol and/or coffee and/or desserts. To just release words gurgling inside my head and bursting from my heart. But this year, I got into blogging more than just a way of self expression. I ventured out of the confines of Multiply and got into the more public spheres of wordpress and blogspot. I compartmentalized my mindburps into different blogs with different themes. I spent hours looking for templates and days adding widgets and gadgets galore. I tried to understand the science of hit rates. I twitterized. I am not yet sure why I'm doing all that, but I'
m game enough to watch how this bloggaholia will evolve.

4) Batangas Escapes - And when I just want to wean myself from the wawawa, I go where dsl means daylong sleeping and loafing and go to Batangas to read, walk, stare at the lake, and catch a whiff of rural eau de swine. Aahhh.

5) Books, Books, and Book Nuts - It's my mother's fault. Like most of life's major issues, this bibliophilia can be blamed on the parents, specifically the female parent. But it's true. She got me reading when I was 3, and indoctrinated me into book collection. And now, in 2008, I met a bunch of people called Shelfarians, and Flippers who made me feel stepping into a
bookstore without buying anything is a shameful crime. They are the reason why I can no longer see the floor of our second floor and why nothing strikes fear in my husband's heart than seeing me enter a bookstore. I acknowledge that it's madness and I am sick. Yes, I am Gege, and I am a biblioaddict. And aside from my mom, there are nuts out there that I can blame.

6) Big Black Eyebags - I live 6 timezones away from where my body is. For many reasons -- like #3 and #5 above , plus reading 75 student papers every week during the first term -- I've become friends with the hours after midnight. Sometimes I get to bed as my husband is leaving it to shower and go to work. This year's move to in-law land might/will have to change that. And that's probably a good thing. because eye creams are expensive.

) Beach Escapade - Camiguin, my only claim to still be deserving of my Islandhopper name. This was the first time I went to this kind of adventure without husband, friend, and the family grill. Solo at White Island. Woman against nature in my ballroom-proportioned bedroom at Enigmata Tree House. Careening toward the sea in a motorbike. And who could forget Dodong?

8) Butter N Toast - How many times in the past few months have I found myself sighing the closest to a sigh of contentment? It's not a resting in laurels kind of contentment, but just this wonderful feeling that this club is making a difference in the lives of individuals hungry for learning and passionate about self development. I love this club, and I adore the people in it.

So there. The big 8 of 2008. And as I wind down this recap, I remember one more big thing -- the bonds. The bonds I've formed with so many people this year. Bonding with hubbaluvva as he spends less time traversing Luzon and more time conversing with me (minor miracle there), the transatlantic and I-knew-you-20-years-ago bonds made possible by Facebook, bonds with people who hate the books I love and love the books I hate, bonds with family, with sisters in faith, with students past and new, with faceless cyberfriends, with people who care about giving the underprivileged a voice, bonds built through cups of coffee, bonds developed every other Thursday night, bonds in a smaller and smaller world.

I don't believe in luck. I don't believe in numerelogy. But 2008 was a pretty good year.


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