“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

the book thief

Don’t judge a book by its cover. But what about it’s title? It has happened often to me to pick up a novel just because of its interesting heading. That’s how I came across the beautiful and emotionally deep story between the pages of ‘The Book Thief’. The moment I laid eyes on the cover, I already knew I’d devour it in the next few days. For Markus Zusak has chosen his words carefully and if his desired effect was to bring immediate attention to his book, well then – bull’s-eye!

Here’s a little fact – you will die. The narrator to this incredible story is no other than death itself. The plot is developed in Germany during the dark days of the Third Reich, which is where we find our protagonist – the 9-year-old Liesel Meminger, the book thief. The novel describes her story and the story of all the people who live on her street when the bombs start falling down. This novel is, among other things, about a girl, a number of words, an accordion player, a few fanatic Germans, a Jewish fist fighter and a lot of thefts. And another important note – Death will visit Liesel three times.

Germany during the Third Reich is a dismal place to be. The atmosphere is filled with angst and anxiety. Families are torn apart, which is why Liesel finds herself in the foster care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. She has just witnessed the death of her own brother and the departure of her beloved mother who she’ll probably never see again. In times like these similar occurrences are not rare. War brings nothing but horror, tears and suffering. Battles are raging and it seems they are just on the brink of collapsing inside the safe haven of home. Work and food are harder and harder to come by. And in this total chaos of destruction and devastation, Liesel is slowly learning how to read and how to fight her inner demons.

It is hard to believe that a young girl can adjust in such a dismal time. But she is capable of finding happiness and comfort in Hans’ tranquil voice and in stealing books from the enormous library owned by the mayor. Not only that, she befriends the neighbor’s boy Rudi and the two become inseparable. They share adventures and get into trouble together. But most importantly they share their hunger, hopes and dreams.

In a world whose background is filled only with gray and black, Liesel is a bright spot that radiates sunshine. Colors have a quite important part in the book. Death always describes the sky when someone exhales his last breath. The sky is never the same. It changes and every moment it is painted with a different shade which often is a mirror image of the emotions that are transmitted below. The narrator highlights the importance of surroundings and atmosphere.

And the atmosphere is not very calm. Joining the Nazi party becomes inevitable and Hans Hubermann, despite his disliking of the radical ideas of the political force, has no other choice but to become a member. However it is his house where Max, who is a Jew and persecuted by the law, finds a home. Weary of his journey and of his life as a fugitive, the young man is filled with negative emotions and is incapable of sleeping. It is Liesel who helps Max get through the dark tunnel and shows him the light. To thank her, he writes a short illustrated story called “The Standover Man” for Liesel and gives it to her as a birthday gift. The title refers to the people in one’s life who will stay comfortingly at one’s bedside in times of need, just as Liesel did for Max and as Hans had done for Liesel.

Mark Zusak tells us that humans are not only interesting and challenging but also very important. Through the eyes of Death we see that compassion will save the world no matter how many lives and how many souls have been burned. If you are looking for a profoundly moving novel that will make you fall in love with characters whose fate will keep you on edge, ‘The Book Thief’ is the thing to read.

Sophie

Sophie

“The Storyteller” by Antonia Michaelis

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Seemingly a tantalizing love story amidst the beautiful, snowy winter in Germany, “The Storyteller” turned out to be a spellbinding cocktail of mystery, laughter, suspense, tears, murder and metaphors. As well as an eloquent warning to stalkers.

I had my doubts when I picked up the novel because its blurb reveals it as a hackneyed “good girl falls for the enigmatic bad boy” plot but Anna and Abel’s story tremendously deviates from the platitude. They are both genuine personalities, so disparate from one another, yet converging in a compelling romance brimmed with ill-timed questions and astonishingly overt answers.

Anna Leeman is in her last year of high school. There are just two months till graduation when she would take off to England to work as an au pair. She is an assiduous student with an affinity for music but despite her good grades, her affluent and understanding parents – she is discontent with her life. Though eighteen-years-old, she deems herself still as a little girl, “living inside her soap bubble, a beautiful and stubborn soap bubble”.

“Life seemed to consists of collecting points, points that were tallies into your final grade, like dollar bills in a strange game of Monopoly” Until the coldest day in winter – the day when she finds a doll under the coach in the student room and her life changes forever.

Abel Tannatek, commonly known as the Polish Peddler, is the pariah in school. Possibly a Nazi, a drug dealer, a nymphomaniac (well, succulent rumours circulate all schools at the speed of light), he is considered to be a tough guy who listens to white noise in order isolate himself from the rest of the world. But Abel has a tender side, exhibited only to his little sister Micha, of whom he takes care of.

Micha is an anchor for Abel. She endows his insufferable life with a meaning. Knowing that he would lose her, he puts his own life at stake, preferring to let go of himself than to live without her and what she represents. Hope, that is. Spring.

But winter seems interminable in a life so cruel and unfair, where people live in castes and the leap from an inferior to a superior class is always lethal. “Poor stays poor and rich stays rich, and those two, they will never meet.” So before they face together the real world and its shades of crudeness, Anna and Abel travel side by side in Micha’s favourite fairy tale created by her brother. A glorious story about a brave little cliff queen who embarks on the journey of her life after her island is shattered by the sea as red as blood.

But this is no ordinary fairy tale. The storyteller skillfully weaves his words so that they become keys to the intractable mysteries of his life – the questions that are yet to be asked and the questions that would never be asked. He confesses his most atrocious crimes and his most selfless sacrifices through the exploits of the little queen.

It doesn’t take long for Anna (and any girl reading, actually) to fall in love with this miraculous purported-Nazi who can create parallel worlds with mighty words in order to warn his little sister of the dangers and pitfalls that await her in the cold, repelling reality. You just sighed, didn’t you?

Antonia Michaelis offers thrilling insights into the multifarious nature of love. She brilliantly illustrates the inequities on earth and explores the impact of affliction and misery on our lives and how the environment we grow up in determines distinct traits in our personalities.

The novel raises profound unfathomable questions about the the abstruse order in the world. How come Anna lives in the house with the blue air with the laundry machine and the dryer; with the fireplace and the old piano while Abel and Micha are stuck in the eyesore with the sagging wallpapers, the DIY beds and the broken furniture?   Unfortunately, “there are fewer answers in the world than questions, and if you ask me now why that is so, I must tell you there is no answer to that question.”

In spite of the woes and mishaps, the characters do not give up. They seek hope in parallel worlds, in simple joyous activities as ice skating, in momentous laughter and in each other. But even though sometimes the soap bubble and the white noise may intertwine, and Anna and Abel may find infinitesimal consolation in the other, they still have to strive by themselves for their own survival.

I loved “The Storyteller” because it is not a hokum. It depicts life in all its ambiguity, uncertainty, inequity and poignancy. It is a tale of an impossible love between a hapless boy, who has born so much pain, disappointment and fear, and a lucky girl, who realizes she never deserved all she had. It is a tragedy of infinite trust and betrayal, which reinforces the statement that we see only what we want to see.

“Go away princess. Leave your outlaw alone. You won’t change him… go away, Anna, far away, and don’t ever come back. The fairy tale doesn’t have a happy ending.”

Mery

Mery

“Paper Towns” by John Green

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John Green is an incredible human being. Not only is he an absolute fan-boy but he is also an inspirational novelist. His books are remarkable for they carry a unique atmosphere of the profoundly moving lives of the seemingly ordinary teenage folk. It may seem that young adult novels that do not feature magical beings are condemned to be simple and boring, ‘Paper Towns’ scratches that assumption straight off the list with a permanent black marker. So don’t be afraid, you will most definitely not be disappointed.

It is an interesting observation that the title of the book has its own personal meaning. It is as a kind of an introduction to the story and the main problem. The term paper town suggests a place where everything is lacking in depth, a superficial town with 2 dimensional beings. A town so fake that looked at from a distance doesn’t seem real at all. With all the same houses and all the same streets it looks as if it’s built out of legos or paper. It makes you wonder whether the people living there are as shallow and plastic as everything else that surrounds them. And it comes to mind that maybe in the depths of such an uninteresting and fragile place there might be people who want to escape from the tedious and repetitive routine of everyday life.

For Quentin Jacobsen living a mundane and ordinary life is quite all right. He even finds comfort in knowing that the next day will bring him the same as the last. He sounds like a quite boring protagonist but in reality he has hidden potential which is a secret even for him. When his childhood love, the girl he has spent all his years thinking about, Margo Roth Spiegelman cracks open his window, dressed as a ninja, promising him the night of his life, Q has no other choice but to follow her. And in this very night he leaves his comfort zone and becomes someone extraordinary. He breaks all the boundaries set in his moral system and takes a deep breath of the fresh air of freedom. But the story is never that simple.

’Paper Towns’ is divided into three parts and each marks a different stage of the course of the plot. Each bit has its own heading which is a specific metaphor frequently used throughout the book:
Part one: The Strings, Part two: The Grass, Part three: The Vessel. Each individual chapter within these sections is labeled with a number. Additionally, the third part of the novel is divided into smaller sections by the hour.

All the metaphors used have a symbolic meaning that is associated with life. One of the main themes of the novel is life after school. As seniors, the main characters are facing the end of school, the end of childhood, and the end of an era. They are about to be thrown in the real world where they have the choice, it is their voice that will utter the words which will shape their future. They have to plan out the first steps they want to make as adults and how they will influence their life. Should they stay in the paper town and never change, should they pursue a career or should they give it all up and give in to experiencing and traveling?

But the question is not only about the path they will take which might lead them to happiness. The meaning of life and its worth are put on the table and discussed. Why sometimes a fatal exit is chosen in front of a difficult solution. Life is sacred and vulnerable and can not be easily taken away with a simple flick of a knife when there are so many opportunities to be explored, so many places to be, so many new and unknown things to be tried. Not only that but the existence of one affects the existence of many and every choice is a drop in the still surface of lake which makes ripples. And those ripples can never be foreseen and their power is unlimited. This should always be taken into account for it is in human nature to be selfish and it is often forgotten that our actions provoke a reaction. It’s even explained in the laws of physics which means that it is true.

As a good hufflepuff, John Green shares his talent with the world and gives us the most precious and treasured gifts of all – breathtaking novels. If you’re wondering what to read that will keep you on edge and take you on a rollercoaster even more exciting than the one in the amusement park, well, look no further. ‘Paper Towns’ is the book four you.

Sophie

Sophie

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

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I was astonished when I found out that Sylvia Plath’s brilliant novel “The Bell Jar” is actually a biographical novel, exploring the depths of the human mind and tracing the cause for the author’s stay in an asylum. It is one of the few books (if not the only one) I have encountered which actually deals with the consciousness, instead of the subconscious or the soul. Although a whit gloom and morbid, it is a cornucopia of hope, freedom, new beginnings and intermittent happy endings.

As John Green put it in “Paper Towns”: “I’m not saying that everything is survivable. Just that everything except the last thing is.”

“The Bell Jar” is a first-person narrative. It revolves around a nineteen-year-old girl, called Esther Greenwood, who comes from a small town in the suburbs of Boston but harbors grandiose dreams and desires. As every worthwhile story about a small girl in a big world, it begins in the city.

Esther earns a summer internship in an eminent New York magazine for which she has been yearning for years. However, Manhattan, journalism, the libertine way of life and she, herself, fail to live up to her expectations. She discovers that a certain place or a particular experience never alters you or impels you to see your surroundings differently. Her sojourn in the ostentatious hotel “Amazon” pushes her over the verge of a mental breakdown.

As despair, anxiety and depression seize her, Esther’s messed-up inner world opens up for us through peculiar connotations and vivid retrospections. Her principles and misgivings become tell-tale signs of the cause of her state of mind.

Esther is an intransigent feminist, but nonetheless a paper girl. Even though she wishes to defy the common conventions such as marriage, motherhood and a patriarchal world, the contrast between her demeanour and her thoughts is startling. She dreams of and alleges stuff she knows she does not want to do in order to make the world and herself resemble the perfect image she bears. This duplicity tears her asunder. Her freedom and the plethora of possibilities, spread out before her, encumber her. She is always in a quandary, struggling between the stereotypic, what the others expect and what she thinks she may want.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Throughout the whole novel Esther Greenwood is striving for emancipation. From hers and other’s expectations. From conservative mores. From society’s pressure. From the patriarchate. From the enormity and unattainability of her own dreams. From the fetters of her human, mortal self.

“The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket”

By breaking down, Esther cleanses herself. She reassembles the shattered visions and prepares to start a new. She realizes that the world is what you make of it. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her first published poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song”: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. / I think I made you up inside my head.”

The bell jar is not merely depression or anxiety. It is the privacy and confinement of our minds. It is a prison from which you could never break away. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whomever you pretend to be, you are inevitably going to be locked in that claustrophobic cell.

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”

We are all jailbirds in that sense – birds with trimmed wings and battered feathers. We gradually lose our effervescence in longing for the sun’s genuine embrace for we are confined in an indestructible bell jar. We contemplate the infinite horizon though transparent glass. The image of ourselves in the world is just a reflection off the walls of the jar.

“The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life”

Each and everyone one of us can sympathize with Esther Greenwood. We have all been down the same road hundreds of times, propelled by existential crisis, mid-life crisis, or self-attrition, even if we didn’t need to undergo electroshock therapy. So don’t wait until the figs decay and plop on the ground, but start reading it now!

Mery

Mery