Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bitter and Sweet, with a Lie and a Thief...

NPR has a great series called "Three Books ..." where they invite well-known writers to recommend “three great reads on a single theme”. I'm fairly certain NPR has no idea who I am. But that doesn’t stop me from opining here. So I present my second set of triplet recommendations, and heartily invite you to join me. It’s time, once again, for "3 Books".... Wait, maybe make that 4!

Let's just start out by getting one thing clear: I hate war. I loathe violence in any form, to the point of a visceral recoil. Oh, yeah, and I'm the only person I know who falls asleep in action movies. (I think it's my way of emotionally checking out when the action/violence becomes overwhelming.)

In the last few weeks I purchased three books to give as gifts, and shocked myself as I realized (after the fact) that all three books, spanning over seven different countries and cultures, are all centered around World War II. Yet they are all surprisingly non-violent. Somehow these three books manage to side-step most of the blood and gore and bring us powerful stories about humanity — how love prevails over the ravages of war on families, friendship, and forgotten freedoms. These truly are three of the best books I've read this year—not counting Miss Delacourt, which is of course in a category all its own). I can say that partly because war is not the main character here. People are. And I LOVE people!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is a series of witty letters back and forth between London travel author Juliet, her publisher, and her new (serendipitous) friends in Guernsey. The writing style is so clever and dry, it reminded me of what Brillig and I might have written to each other in London in the 1940s. This book is a charmer! At first I was just intrigued by the snarky witticisms and the epistolary form, thinking it was another, updated, 84 Charing Cross Road...a paean to book lovers. I dabbled at it slowly here and there, and laughed at the brashness this woman wielded through words.

Then at some point I was drawn into their world so completely I could not put the book down. The characters came to life, inhabiting my subconscious. One night I actually had a dream that I went to Guernsey to hang out with them. I was a little sad when I woke up and realized it was just a dream. I love these people.
I love their simple way of life. I love that they founded their whole book club in an effort to make a harmless lie become rock-solid truth. I love their silly quirks and antics, and their acceptance of the same in each other. I love the humanity that rises to the surface. I love the silly misadventures that helped them support each other through appalling wartime conditions. It makes everyone who survived the war with their humanity intact a genuine hero.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an amazing piece of literature, perhaps wrongfully classified as young adult fiction. It is the first time I've encountered Death as a narrator, and he does so artfully:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.

You are going to die.

Death describes the weight and color of souls he has been asked to carry back across the sky to their maker, and bemoans the vast amount of work he has during WWII. The main character is a young girl, Liesl Meminger, sent to live with another family outside Munich. More than anything in the world she wants to learn to read, and her love for words becomes one of the driving forces in the book. (Ironically the book is laced with a smattering of harsh curse words, although most are in German, which tends to have a softening effect similar to the British accent in Four Weddings and a Funeral.)

I love seeing the war through the girl's eyes, the contrast of such innocence against the atrocities of war, and the irony of how most adults behaved in ways that are senseless and childish and cruel. The friendships are both innocent and powerful, crossing lines of race, religion, culture, and age. The strongest theme of the book was the power wielded by words, both for good and for evil. It does so primarily with the use of metafiction — in this case strange, primitively-illustrated, yet powerful books-within-books that use abstraction and storytelling to draw some poignant insights. This book was visionary, profound and unique. I would honestly have to label it Literature with a capital L and Art with a capital A.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl growing up in Seattle during World War II, intrigued me to the point that I was up late at night googling Japanese internment camps. I found myself completely and personally immersed in the storyline from page one. There are reasons for this, beyond Mr. Ford's great storytelling. We have some dear friends whose parents lived through the grave injustices of internment. Furthermore, I was haunted as a child by the stories of such an internment camp located right here in Utah, called Topaz. I remember stories my dad told of my grandpa speaking out in various public forums against the internment camps. Dad said that after the war he and Grandpa would stop by the Japanese markets and people would slip extra gifts into his grocery bags. He was completely revered by the Japanese population that remained in Utah – his efforts on their behalf were legendary.

A week or so ago my book group had a phone conference with Jamie Ford. He was delightful and endearing and we could instantly see why the book is so widely loved – because he himself is so widely loveable. The book has a pull between the characters that is so strong it turns page after page and chapter after chapter by sheer magnetism. I loved the way Mr. Ford chose to use the innocence of children and friendship to shed light on the harshness of prejudice and hate. I loved the symbol of the rare jazz record, both broken and whole, he used to represent the relationships. I loved the characters, both fictional and real, he included. I loved the setting of Seattle, and the old Panama Hotel still standing there. I loved the sub-plot of the sympathetic gal at the post office. And the surprising goodness of the harsh-at-times school lunch lady. One more thing I should mention about this book: It is squeaky-clean. Clean enough to offer to both your children and your grandma. Pure. Innocent. Lovely. But with a compelling plot that will grip you to the very last page.

And, I can't resist adding the just-finished Sarah's Key, which shares the setting of World War II and a child as the central character, and adds France to the list of countries and cultures. I have to admit I did not love this book to the degree I loved the first three, but the image of the boy in the cupboard is both precious and searing; juxtaposing the issue of abortion with the holocaust made for an eye-opening metaphor; and it was a definite page-turner – I had a hard time putting it down, even when I knew what was going to happen.


Melanie J said...


Loved Guernsey. I read it last summer and tried to make everyone I knew read it. I could go on and on. But let's just say good pick.

The Book Thief. That book has stuck with me quite a bit in the two years since I read it. It just grips me.

And metafiction? Now you're speaking my husband's language. His master's thesis in Latin American literature is all about metafiction. We used to talk about a lot when we first got married.

The other two you mentioned, I will be taking a gander at.

Kazzy said...

I have only read The Book Thief from your list here, but I agree with Mel... it has certainly stuck with me. Powerful stuff.

I've got your copy of Guernsey and I think I will crack it open and read it right away!

Eowyn said...

I read The Book Thief at your recommendation, and I echo your review here. It was very powerful.

I'll be on the other two. . .I mean three. . .as soon as I can get them from the library.

You're awesome!

L.T. Elliot said...

I admit to having read none, as yet. However, I will get on it right away!

Kristina P. said...

The only one I have read is The Book Thief. I loved it. Very moving and powerful.

Luisa Perkins said...

I am the lone voice of contention; I did not love The Book Thief, though I dearly love metafiction in general. We read it in our Book Group; I was the contrarian.

We are reading The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in our Book Group this month! So far, I like it quite a bit.

I loved reading your reviews!

Brillig said...

My book club is reading The Book Thief in a couple of months, so I'll hold off for that. I'll try Hotel when I get a free second for sure. As for Guernsey, I'm betting that it's AWESOME if you compare it to the sort of thing we'd have written to each other! Hahahaha.

Which gives me a brilliant idea-- we really ought to just turn in all of our emails to a publisher. They would be an instant sensation. :-D

Kimberly said...

You could do this professionally, you know. I want to read every single one of those now.

Miss Brecken said...

I keep accidentally reading war books, and I need a break! But it seems that its the trend right now with the really good books. So, I'm going to stick to young adult sappy easy stuff until I'm ready for The Book Thief, and the History of Love, and add Hotel on the Corner to my list.

Jamie Ford said...

Hey Char,

Thanks for the lovely review. My wife just finished Sarah's Key––could not put it down. And I just picked up the Book Thief, I've heard such great things about it. And of course, I'll get around to Guernsey. :)

Mrs4444 said...

These are very glowing endorsements--Thanks! I'm still working on It's All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg (memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning author), so I'll have to add at least one of these to my very tall summer pile :)

InkMom said...

As soon as I saw what your "theme" was I knew The Book Thief would be on the list. We're covering this one at book club next week, and I'm leading the discussion, because this book was fantastic -- paradigm-shifting, horizon-broadening, and absolutely discomfitting all at the same time. I loved every minute of it.

And now I know that you have excellent taste, I will take your other recommendations under advisement!

Barbaloot said...

I wish I would've seen this post BEFORE I was in the airport today! I saw that first book in a store as I was waiting for my flight and would've been much more inclined to buy it at the time had I already known of your approval.

Debbie said...

I need to give Guernsey another chance. I just never got off the ground with it. Book Thief is wrongly categorized - I agree.

Jessica said...

Thanks for the recommendations! I wrote them down, always looking for good books and from a trusted friend, I know I'll love them!

Heather of the EO said...

Usually book recommendations overwhelm me because I'm always part-way through about four books at once.

But I KNOW I'll love what you love. I've seen a couple of these in the stores and they jumped off the shelf at me. I love that I'm seeing them jump out at me here now too :)