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The jury is still out on this one. There were several points along the way in reading Those Who Save Us that I felt I could have put the book down and it would have been OK. Yet I didn’t. It’s not a case that it wasn’t a worthwhile book, but there was something about it that did not pull me in and engage me as I would have liked. As a writer, Blum has an excellent command of the language. You kind of knew where the book was heading – or at least, you hoped it was – but my total investment wasn’t there. Why not?

For one thing, I don’t think Blum made me love her characters enough. Trudy, the daughter, lives a rather empty life emotionally. I understand why, but I still wanted more from her. Same with Anna, the mother. I certainly understand why she became stoic and blocked emotion, but how do you write about two such characters and still make us care? Anna went through some excruciating experiences; I should have loved her deeply. I also didn’t feel the story building with the kind of momentum that I felt it could have to a real climax.

The novel is told in alternating groups of chapters about Anna and her past and Trudy in the present. Blum weaves them together to bring Anna into the current time in Trudy’s life. The story begins in Weimar, Germany in late 1939 when the Nazis had taken control of the city and started taking Jews. Anna is a girl of eighteen, living a very comfortable life with her widowed father, who is cold, demanding, and solicitous of the Nazis’ favorable opinion. Her father’s dog becomes ill, and Anna, fearful of making the journey to the German vet across town, takes the dog to the closer veterinarian who is Jewish. The two take a liking to each other despite an age difference, and she ends up hiding Max in her large and elegant home, practically under her father’s nose. They fall in love, she conceives his child, but comes home one day to find him gone. The father has suspected and turned him in, at which point, Anna leaves home.

Hoping for some word of Max, Anna remains in Weimar, hidden by a baker, Frau Mathilde Staudt, who helps the Resistance.  There, Anna gives birth. In making a secret run to hide bread in the forest for the starving prisoners, Anna is spotted by the Obersturmführer, Horst. To save her life and that of her daughter, she complies with the SS Officer who demands an often cruel sexual relationship with her.

In the current day, Trudy is a college professor of German history. Following the burial of Anna’s American husband, Trudy is putting her mother in a nursing home after a fire in Anna’s house, its source being suspicious. In picking up her mother’s belongings, Trudy finds what appears to be a gold cigarette case with a swastika on the front, and inside, a photograph of the Obersturmführer with her mother seated in front, Trudy on her lap. Trudy has always been angry with her mother’s refusal to tell her about her early childhood in Germany, but now believes her father was a Nazi. In her search for some sort of enlightenment, Trudy decides to do a special project interviewing Germans who lived through this time, and recording their views of the Holocaust in retrospect. She is shocked by the answers she hears, but also meets more than one person who will impact both her and her mother’s lives.

The story continues, weaving the lives of mother and daughter together, past to present. Despite the forward momentum of these intertwined stories coming to a resolution, I didn’t find myself on what could have been a taut and gripping journey. And yet, I never stopped reading. So the jury is out.

If nothing else, this book is a reminder of how we, who have grown up in the free world, unscathed by events such as those in World War II, can never begin to understand the torture, horror, and pain of those who lived, died, and witnessed the Holocaust. In that regard, the book never fails to be both brutally honest and a cautionary tale of what may lie beneath the surface of even the well-intentioned.

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thebookthiefIt is not very often in my experience that you find a book and the movie made from it both outstanding, but in the case of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I do. I just finished reading it for the second time … my first a couple years ago, but after seeing the film, I dove back in and read it again, and enjoyed it even more.

The Book Thief is promoted as a YA novel, but it cannot help but reach the heart of any reading adult. Told over a period of about 5 years, the story takes place in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. The heroine, Liesel, is being surrendered, along with her brother, to another family to foster as the mother cannot afford their care. The sickly brother passes away on the train ride to Molching, is buried in a patch of snowy land alongside that town’s train station. And this is where the book thief, Liesel, steals her first book.

The tale that follows is about Liesel’s life with her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new and very dear friend, Rudy, and Max, the Jew the Hubermann’s come to hide in their basement. And, of course, it is about Liesel’s learning to read and her stealing books.

There are two factors that set this book apart from so many others. First is Zusak’s exquisite use of language; the book must be read to truly appreciate the author’s brilliance with words. Second is the narrator … Death. Not creepy Death of some stereotypic kind, but a narrator who shares what it is like to gather souls endlessly; how he is present and exhausted at every war; how he sometimes must carry the souls of numerous adults at once, perhaps over his shoulder, but how he always carries children in his arms. His experience of what it is like to be a gatherer of souls is interspersed but does not dominate his third-person narrative of Liesel and those about her.

Because of this unique take on events, the reader is made aware of this shameful period of history in a way that is like no other I’ve ever read. Zusak develops such compassion for his characters, for the Germans, the Jews they are brainwashed to despise, and even many of the soldiers. And shining in the middle of it all is a little girl, who despite losing those she loves time after time, has the courage and compassion to read to all those huddling in a neighbor’s basement during an air raid, who still can risk sneaking into the wealthy mayor’s house to steal a book, giving her one of the true joys she comes to know, reading.

In the movie, Geoffrey Rush and Emma Watson are outstanding as Hans and Rosa, (Papa and Mama). Liesel is played by a newcomer, Sophie Nelisse, one of literally hundreds of girls who auditioned for the part, and she is perfect.

If you were to choose between reading the book or seeing the movie … I can only recommend both, in whatever order suits you. I cannot imagine you will be disappointed. You can visit The Book Thief‘s official website, (click through the opening page and go to videos, upper left or find additional trailers/videos here), and perhaps gain a taste of the book. Importantly, the author was thrilled with the movie rendition of his book. More importantly, I cannot imagine you reading this book, seeing this movie, and not being touched to the core.

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KitchenGodsWife-AmyTan2Had you asked me if I were interested in reading the story of a Chinese woman growing up in China in the late 20’s through the end of World War II, now living in California, and her relationships with family, I probably would have said `no.’ Had you told me the author was Amy Tan, who wrote The Joy Luck Club, I would have immediately changed my answer.

I am so impressed with how Ms. Tan immediately pulls you into her story; it seems so simply written. I don’t know how she does it, but I am engrossed from the first page. Pearl, the American born daughter of Winnie Louie, who grew up in China, begins the tale in the first person. She is observing her mother’s and aunties’ behaviors, their reliance on custom and tradition, and its seeming irrelevance to current day life. She doesn’t really understand her mother and is critical of her negativity and superstitions. They’ve had a rift between them since the death of Jimmy, Pearl’s father, when she was fourteen.

What becomes apparent in the first few chapters is that there are many secrets being kept by both Winnie and Pearl. But even deeper secrets are kept by Winnie and longtime friend, Helen …  secrets that are bound by fear, pain, dreadful memories, and the need to follow traditional Chinese customs. Believing she may be dying, Helen threatens to reveal the secrets kept for over 50 years and free herself of the burden. For Winnie, this cannot happen, and so, with current day family relationships established, the story switches to Winnie becoming the narrator and looking back at the past. She will be the one to at long last reveal the secrets, not Helen.

She begins her story when a child of six in China, when her beloved mother, and fifth wife to her father, disappears, and how Winnie’s upbringing falls to Old Aunt and New Aunt and their deeply traditional views. As in The Joy Luck Club, the story is not only about the characters, but about a culture and a country of which I suspect most of us know little. As Winnie tells her story, we learn about the critical qualities of politeness, respect and saving face, the role luck – or belief in it – plays  in people’s lives, and the inability to escape a traditional marriage, no matter how abusive.

The unfolding of Winnie’s life, her dangerous marriage, the loss of her children, the toll taken by war, all are answering the questions that her daughter has about her mother and why she is the way she is. This would be a deeply moving story of one woman’s life and her survival against enormous odds in any culture, but in The Kitchen God’s Wife, we also learn about China and a span of time and series of events that changed the country and its residents forever.

Ms. Tan brings it all together in the final chapters, a satisfying conclusion, and one which had me go back and read Pearl’s chapters a second time. Highly recommended.

 

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