The Book Thief

book-thief-cover

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Or, Death

First off, my impression:

This book resembles a brittle picture book with almost no pictures and heavily laden with words.

Brittle, with gritty details of events and scenery. Brittle in the sense that the narrative remains tinged with bitter, passive-aggressive anger throughout. Brittle, in that the sentences seem to have fallen onto the pages in tiny flakes – short, choppy phrases and clauses scattered almost randomly into paragraphs.

Yet, it’s super clear: the author chooses his words carefully and deliberately. He puts weight in each one with loving care. The crazy, random sensation comes from the fact that he’s taken these carefully constructed sentences and thrown them onto the page, bombarding the reader with laden descriptions and meaningful actions one after another.

The book is heavy with words. It was exhilerating, yet weighted. I felt rushed to read, while knowing full well I was missing half the significance of the little adjectives and verbs the author dropped here and there, almost carelessly. “The days hobbled on.” “The cold was streaming on.” “The crowd did what crowds do.” “The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.”

I’m still a bit unsure whether the author spent hours upon hours crafting each word, or if he just kind of … typed it up all at once and never looked back. Either way, I liked it. I’d imagine the entire book was ALL CAPS and bold if the author truly had his way.

The book is a picture book, in that this book lives out the metaphor, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It tries pretty hard to paint a picture using words (although it deliberately gives up this endeavor at one point to present to us a series of sketches in the middle of the story). The end result is a series of flashing images in the reader’s mind, though it all remains hazy and somewhat sepia-tinged. Not literally, but I got the sense of riffling through old photographs in an attic. The matter-of-fact tone of the author mixes with descriptions of startling clarity and punch to create a series of impressions. I never could imagine any of the characters’ faces, and I may have a bit of a complaint that the author decided not to zoom in on them a little more. But I appreciated the experience of imagining faded photos while reading a 500-page novel.

Then, some details I particularly appreciated:

  1. This book is narrated partially by Death, personified. A sort of snarky, cynical Death that knows how to appreciate color and a well-written book. I personally enjoyed Death’s subjective portrayal of events, and I think the author falls short in that the story only brings in Death as a narrator in parts, and not the whole. A lot of the actual events in the story are narrated in third-person, and Death only interjects sometimes to comment on how he sees what’s happening. I would have liked to see more of him, even if I understand that he is meant to provide commentary from off-screen, rather than take center stage.
  2. “Words” are a powerful symbol. “Words” represent power, control, and oppression in the printed form of Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler. They also represent the freedom and the ability to fight back, through Max’s handwritten book The Word Shaker. The title of Max’s book resonates especially powerfully – he shakes “words,” but words are a lot more than just words. Words are the tools of the oppressors, and he uses those same tools to shake their regime. Words also provide comfort as Liesel reads a book out loud to her neighbors during air raids. Words can connect people – like Liesel and the mayor’s wife. Unspoken words mean as much as spoken ones – in Rosa’s silence as she holds her absent husband’s accordion. The book is littered with this sort of symbolism. I had a lot of fun wading through it all (especially those moments when the author takes specific moments, cuts them out of the standard paragraphs, centers and bolds them, in order to drive home his point. This book in itself demonstrates the importance of words and their mode of presentation).
  3. The main character is … Polish? Her best friend is explicitly described as Aryan, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Her father qualifies for the Communist Party. This is a story about World War II from the perspective of several surprisingly marginal people groups, and shows how they may have been affected after all.

And one thing I didn’t quite appreciate:

The major spoilers given right at the start of the book. Call it a personal dislike. I do not favor a narrative style when major events are outright told to the reader before we even begin the story. It takes a lot of the suspense and anticipation out of the reading experience. Yes, the opening chapters were artistically written, and I admit I loved the experience of reading them. But still. I went into it knowing certain people were going to die. Not cool.

Despite that, I enjoyed the read very much. Like I said, exhilarating yet heavy. A unique reading experience not easily copied by others. Recommended, if only for the satisfaction of reading a book that appreciates its own genre.

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A Novelist’s “Magna Carta” (x2)

Thesis: try writing a novel. Or a list of novel elements. Or something.

I have not been able to pick up any books in a while, let alone finish one. The busy schedule of life and a dash of laziness has taken my summer by storm. Having a legal internship all summer long has also drained the supply of hours I would usually have available during the day. At this point, I just want to sleep. But I can’t. Because college has trained me to stay up until at least 11 pm.

So instead, I’ve turned my attention back to a book that I never quite finished last year.

no plot no problem
image taken from amazon.com

“No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days”

written by Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month

Yes, or NaNoWriMo for short.

The 30-day marathon every November to complete a 50,000-word novel. I’ve participated twice, 2013-2014. It was awesome. And regrettably, I skipped 2015 because . . . well, because law school happened (a trending reason for dropping all of your most creative hobbies for 3 years). Looking back, I should’ve just gone for it in 2015. I would have been a more pleasant person to speak with. I wouldn’t have lost my creativity. And my novel would have been an awesome stress reliever. Put in some action scenes, ridiculous plot twists, and kick-butt heroes beating up all those tortious villains. . .

Regrets at the missed opportunity.

But, anyway, this book!

This book is a laugh.

If you have the slightest desire to write something creative, even if it is NOT a 50,000-word novel, just read any chapter of this book.

I mean any chapter.

Or read the convenient, online versions of it found through Google searches. Chris Baty has a knack for making “writing a novel” sound like “go walk in the park.” It’s something you’re always thinking you should do, because it’s healthy and good for Vitamin D content and stuff, but you never get around to actually doing it. No reason for not getting around to doing it. You just never did. And so, you need a slight push. Baty’s book offers itself as that “slight push.”

One of the things that caught my eye when I went back to this book was a little portion on what Baty calls the author’s Magna Carta. Basically, it is a list of everything you think a good novel ought to contain. Then you make another list of everything you think a good novel ought not to contain (Hence my blog post title, Magna Cart (x2)).

He says every writer should have one. A highly personalized guideline of sorts. I’m not sure if it’s a necessity, but it’s certainly a fun project. Plus, it presents an easier project than the daunting task of writing 50,000 words.

At this point, I would like to encourage everyone to try this project out. No, Chris Baty is not paying me to advertise his book. But doesn’t it just sound like fun?

I’ll share a portion of the two Magna Cartas I created, to get us started.

What a good novel ought to contain (warning: personal preferences):

  1. solid character development
  2. a multi-faceted villain, but one that still properly acts like the bad guy (none of those “wait, he actually slaughtered everyone for a good cause” type villains)
  3. solid world-building (see Tolkien for example)
  4. descriptive narration that informs all 5 senses
  5. romance that does not totally ruin the story (a.k.a. female lead does not go from hero lady to blubbering mush in the process)
  6. main characters with strength, whether that is emotional, physical, intellectual, or other
  7. main characters with at least one interesting talent or hobby
  8. elements of fantasy or history (because diving into a different world is much more fun than staying within our own sometimes)
  9. action driven by dialogue
  10. something distinct that the reader can use to characterize the work in one sentence (e.g. The Book Thief is uniquely known for being narrated by Death. Harry Potter is uniquely known for Hogwarts. Twilight is… I won’t go there. I apologize to the reader.)

What a good novel ought not to contain:

  1. excessive, direct, and over-the-top descriptions of what the characters look like (Don’t tell me about his dazzling eyes. Don’t spend three paragraphs describing her cardigan and jeans.)
  2. Mary Sue (please Google search if you do not know what this is, and then feel guilty thinking of that one book you enjoyed that this trope reminds you of.)
  3. stereotypical supporting characters (the friendly male friend, the jealous female antagonist, the short but funny guy who actually ends up driving the plot, etc)
  4. love triangles that exist just for the sake of having angst
  5. science fiction elements that are used to justify all kinds of fantastic occurrences (my reasoning: might as well just call it magic and be done with it. Don’t spend a chapter explaining how science allows the characters to teleport.)
  6. long, straightforward narration of what is happening in the story right now.
  7. multiple protagonists (I always feel conflicted on who to root for…call it a personal preference.)
  8. emojis (let’s limit these to social media and Venmo, please)

What does your novel Magna Carta (x2) look like?

Actively Pursuing Christ

Here is a piece I wrote for my undergraduate student ministry’s blog. They asked me to write an encouraging post for my fellow brothers and sisters at UCLA, so I decided to simply share a piece of my experience these past few months. Moving to a new state, attending law school, being away from friends and family… these experiences have stripped away some of the things that are important to me. God used this chance to show Himself to me as sovereign and holy – the only one in existence that really matters. I hope everyone finds encouragement in seeking out our God!

GRACE ON CAMPUS AT UCLA

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written by Lily Choi

Lily graduated from UCLA as an English major in 2015. She is currently studying for a J.D. at Harvard Law school. She enjoys reading, writing, and anything Korean. (안녕하세요!)

One of my principal worries when I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts was the loss of my Christian community. GOC had been an instrumental part of my life and my faith during my time at UCLA. I imagined that starting over, making new friends, joining a new Christian group, and establishing accountability would take time and effort. I imagined that it would be hard.

For the most part, I think my fears have been realized.

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PSA: How to Read a Hymnal

A helpful post for churchgoers like me, who have had the experience of opening a hymnal, feeling a bit lost, and looking around surreptitiously to see how everyone else is doing it. Hopefully, next Sunday everyone can join the chorus of worshipers with confidence!

citizens & sons

I attend Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA (aka John MacArthur’s church).  Recently, my church unveiled a new hymnal.  I’ve met a great number of people who had never opened a hymnal before coming to Grace.  There was one time I was having a conversation with a worship leader and mentioned that I sometimes followed the bass line of the four part harmony.  When he said he’d never noticed more than two voices in a hymnal, we realized he’d never noticed that there was music written BELOW the words as well as above them.  As a result, I figured I’d put together this guide to help understand hymnals.

A hymnal is a book of hymns.  Unlike a powerpoint slide, it shows you musical notation to help you follow the song.  This is the hymnal’s greatest quality, and one of several reasons using powerpoint instead of a hymnal is like playing…

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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

This was a literary display of fine art, Singaporean cuisine, pure cut diamonds, and fashion obsessions. I was simply blown away by pages and pages of high society descriptions. The reader gets taken along on a tram car tour through the world of crazy rich Asians. Paragraph after paragraph is dedicated to making sure we know the latest fashions, the oldest mansions, the biggest jewels. Along the way, Kwan has just enough time to give a sidelong glance at the characters, personality development, and plot.

That’s right; I got the distinctive feeling that the story-line took a backseat during this book. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with that. Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young have a romance thing going, and there’s nothing particularly special about the plot of an average girl suddenly finding out that her boyfriend is filthy rich. The scornful mother-in-law and high-society gals who want Nick for themselves also make an appearance as appropriately cliche elements of the story. The development of their relationship is fine. They run across some obstacles. Rachel has some monologue time to help her deal with the bombardment of dazzling riches that belong to Nick. Jealous girls plot; Nick’s mother seethes; a kind friend gives advice; the couple ultimately shows that their love is stronger than, well, everything else. Classic stuff.

I believe some readers even found this disappointing – no proper closure, no real character development. We don’t really see the characters doing much of anything. But I thought it refreshing. The author is absolutely unapologetic about using the medium of the novel to let us take a peek into the lives of rich people. It’s not about reaching the climax of the story, people. It’s about oohing and aah-ing at the glamour and splendor of it all. It’s about having a good laugh together about the ridiculously shallow nature of this miniature society.

Reminds of the feels I had when I watched this:

mean girls
From Mean Girls. Image taken from eonline.com

In any case, to me at least, the story and the characters weren’t really the point of this whole book at all.

First off, Kwan spends much more time and effort sculpting the descriptions of the characters’ designer dresses and brand-name handbags, than he does giving them real personality and recognizable traits. Most of the characters apart from the central cast quite quickly fade away from memory. Instead, they are mannequins – men and women with different last names who flash across the novel’s pages displaying their wealth, status, fashion sense, and fancy house before disappearing back offstage. Whether or not it was purposeful, I find it ironic in a meta-literary way that several fashion shows and runways make an appearance throughout the story.

Also, the story progresses according to the changing locations and events, not necessarily according to the development of the plot. They start in America, then fly to Singapore, and from there Rachel is whisked through a super deluxe hotel, a huge mansion, a getaway resort on a private island, another huge mansion, a church hosting a 40 million dollar wedding, another mansion (this one’s a summer villa), and so on. Nick moves from hotel to boat cruise to mansion and more mansions. And who can forget each and every kind of private jet, plane, yacht, and car they take to get from one place to another? It almost feels like the characters travel around for the sake of allowing the reader to have a glimpse of another five-star piece of property. Sure, Rachel goes to the getaway resort because it’s the location of the bridal shower…. for a bride she met 2 days ago. What can possibly have motivated the bride to invite Rachel, no matter how charming of a woman Rachel happens to be? The author’s determination to wow the reader with the dreamy landscape of this private resort island.

There is something strangely gratifying when I read this book. As a regular human being, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to live this kind of lifestyle. A life where one worries for nothing except which summer villa to spend the boring summer season at. As a regular human being who has never been to Singapore (or has never had the pleasure of being acquainted with billionaires), I can’t help but wonder if people like this actually exist. If Kwan’s lovely descriptions of the finest private banquets and mouth-watering foods starts making me green with envy, he relieves me in the next instance by providing a scene of comic relief, in which these privileged humans betray a ridiculous attitude of self-worth and self-righteousness.

A marvelous display of scenery that I will never get to actually experience. A crazy amount of research must have gone into this book – the author’s knowledge of women’s clothing and brand names borders on ridiculous. The plot deserves polite applause, but the ball gowns that the characters wear demand a standing ovation. Kwan presents readers with the kind of book that could only be structured in this way because its subject matter yields to it. And of course, these kinds of books, where the form of it is organic enough to mold into the shape of the content, is all kinds of fun for the reader.

Warrior BDS vs. Naruto

naruto_and_sasuke warriorbds_poster

Can I just say that I have discovered two series that mirror each other quite interestingly? They are the perfect examples of the following popular literary tropes:

  1. The immature, talented male lead.

naruto warriorbds_baek
N
aruto is pretty famous so I won’t explain long. He is hot-headed, hates to lose, considered a troublemaker, and doesn’t think too much before leaping into action. Same can be said for Baek Dong-soo, titular protagonist of the Kdrama Warrior Baek Dong-soo. He dreams of being the strongest swordsman in Korea, but that goal seems pretty far off when he’s too busy messing around or bragging about his own skills. Still, they both carry a tragic family backstory, and have experienced their fair share of loneliness and pain, and they are willing to work hard for the sake of accomplishing their dreams.

2. The mature, not-quite-as-talented-but-still-strong rival and antagonist.

naruto_sasuke Yuh Un
T
he actual fan favorites (lol). Sasuke has twice the number of fangirls as Naruto, probably. Woon has the same concept – the cool, collected, mature guy whose martial arts skills initially surpass those of the actual male lead of the series. These guys have a clear path set out for them (Sasuke – revenge. Woon – become the heavenly leader of the assassin clan or something like that), and are willing to kill others and betray their friends in order to achieve it. They also have long, straight black hair and seem to favor darker colored outfits.

3. The cool teacher that everyone loves and respects (bonus points because both of them are handicapped – Kakashi is “missing” an eye, and Master Swordsman is missing his left arm).

Naruto_Kakashi01 warriorbds_teacher
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hese men are from the last generation – the remnants of those that are long dead and buried. They carry the history of their dead comrades on their shoulders, and look out for the young ones in their own awkward, spartan, but caring way. Considered extremely skilled in what they do (which is fighting), they contribute to the male lead’s character growth in many ways.

4. The character growth of the male lead.

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A
fter going through some serious crap (*ahem* I mean, troubles), Naruto and Dong-soo show remarkable growth in both their martial arts and in their level of maturity. They struggle with the moralities of right and wrong, learn about their destinies, and become strong for the sake of protecting the people around them. Wow, that sounds cheesy. But that’s literally what they do, and this is arguably the best part of the series. Watching the bratty little kid grow into a hero. It’s greatly satisfying, even if you get a little sad that you won’t really get to see all the hilarious scenes of Naruto or Dong-soo being an idiot and getting into trouble.

warriorbaekdongso naruto_and_sasuke

So yeah! The parallels were too obvious not to share.

Image credits to soompi.com, dramabeans, wikipedia, naruto.gamehop.com, comicvine, naruto.wikia, and Google images.

Keep a Close Watch on Yourself and on the Teaching

citizens & sons

Note: Calvin and I have found increasingly so that this is pretty much Grant’s blog but with Calvin and I as guest posters.


Often times, I find it easy to think that my sins only affect myself and my own walk with God.  I also find it easy to think of my sanctification on a very individualistic level.  Hey, “against [God], [God] only, have I sinned,” right?

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My Life Right Now

I finally managed to flip the last page of Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love this afternoon. After almost 3 months of being convicted at every sentence, I am now just a little bit more aware of what it means to truly love God. I hope that as I marinate on the simple and radical ways in which Chan defines the life of a true believer, I might begin changing both inwardly and outwardly to resemble someone who loves God in a crazy way.

In one of the chapters, there was a question that sticks in my mind especially well:

“What are you doing right now in your life that requires faith?”

Yeah, got nothing. That hurts.

I study, I serve in my campus ministry, I hang out with friends, live a peaceful, loving life with my family, participate in Bible study, go to church, prepare for what is coming after graduation…nothing! There is not a single moment I can think of in which I throw myself into something that I can’t handle on my own. All my hours are controlled, limited to what I can handle. I can study, I can hang out with friends. These things do not NEED the strength of God. There is no boldness, no faith in the God who made me and plans my every step.

In the end, I am merely fearful. Rejection, hardship, and a constant battle await the ones who throw themselves into the fray, armed with nothing but faith in God.

I think I need to realize that “faith in God” is the only thing I need, because from that comes every blessing, providence, support, and love from the creator of everyone and everything. When I take a leap of faith, God will reveal His crazy love for me by catching me and attaching wings to my back.

How crazy is that?

Pic credits to fineartamerica.com
Pic credits to fineartamerica.com

Avengers 2 – Epic Action, Epic Plotholes

age of ultron

It’s not too often that I get to watch a movie with some friends on a night out. The general buzz for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron has yet to die out on my college campus, so last night I headed out with some friends to watch it at 10:50pm.

This was pretty late by our standards. It had better be worth it, was the unspoken mantra.

After 2+ hours sitting in the theatre, I walked out thinking: “That was totally epic! If it weren’t for the many problematic elements, that would have been an awesome experience.”

I subjected my nearest friend to a half-an-hour rant about this movie’s epic moments: both the successes and the failures. As a courtesy to the unsuspecting blog readers, I decided to create a short list of pros and cons instead of one, long, stream-of-consciousness block quote, to make it easier to follow.

Here are some of the good and the bad, as per my own opinion. I claim no expertise on movies and do not mean to offend any die-hard Marvel fans through the following points.

Pro:

The-Avengers-2-Age-of-Ultron-Fathead-Decal-Hulk-vs-Iron-Man-ArtEpic Action – by far this movie’s greatest strength. Ripping through robot men in 800 different ways gives the modern audience some cathartic pleasure, in ways that no amount of fluffy romantic comedy movies can suffice. With multiple protagonists, we get a variety of action – projectiles, hand-to-hand combat, lasers, guns, tasers, shield boomerang, and all-around Hulk power. Yay.

Straightforward plot – let’s face it, most of us aren’t looking for a philosophical work of art here. We go watch indie films for that. From Marvel studios, we want action, and a plot that allows action to happen without confusing the audience with too many plot devices. This movie never pretends to be something more than the standard, good-versus-bad action hero movie, and delivers this well. Good guys are good, they make a mistake and create a bad dude, bad dude goes all crazy, good guys go all angsty, and in the end good triumphs. Simple. No confusion. Great.

The cast – whom we know and love.

The humor – which I have to admit, brings in irony and sarcasm to a fine point, and inserts it at right moments to ease up the tension in a serious battle. I’ve always loved the dynamic of life-and-death battles with bouts of laughter, and Marvel always makes sure to provide a good dose of this every time. My personal favorite running joke in the film – The Vision picks up Thor’s hammer.

Cons:

Underdeveloped characters – I mean the twins. They are introduced. They have some pretty cool powers. They have their share of a tragic backstory, and they start out on the bad guy’s side. Great setup for the introduction of new heroes to add to the team. BUT. Their defect to the Avengers after finding out Ultron’s evilness makes no sense; sure, they hate evil, but they hated Tony Stark too. I don’t buy their acceptance into Tony Stark’s superhero team without some sort of deep emotional reconciliation to smooth over the transition. And ALSO, Quicksilver dies. Just like that. Why!? A pointless death that fails to affect the plot development or the hearts of the audience, who just didn’t have enough time to get to know the guy before he got killed off. Strong potential characters flop because Marvel couldn’t fit them into the movie while giving the rest of the cast some spotlight as well.

No emotional development – Among any of the characters. The romantic subplot between Natasha and Dr. Banner is just…weird, and random (the fandom ship between Black Widow and Cap’n America makes more sense than this). It’s almost as random as the fact that Hawkeye has a wife and 2 kids (hear the sound of Hawk x Widow shippers dying). Plus almost all of these heroes encounter their worst nightmares through the Scarlet Witch’s mind control, and they go into deep angst over these visions……..and that’s it. No resolution. No confronting and overcoming their deep-seeded fears. There isn’t even a moment where they say, “Hey, I have to get over this in order to save the world.” The movie just skips over directly to the final battle. Considering that Tony Stark’s nightmare set off this whole trouble in the first place, I’m surprised the movie never bothers to show how Stark comes to terms with his fears. Or C. America with HIS fears. Or Thor with HIS fears (OK, he has that weird thing in the pond. Not sure if that was a reference to a past Thor movie. As far as this film goes, that pond does nothing but electrocute him).

Plotholes – too numerous to mention. A lot of stuff goes unexplained. This might be because the movie is relying heavily on the other Marvel studio films to fill in the gaps, in which case I point you to my next object of criticism…

References to past movies – which make you feel like Marvel is forcing you to watch the rest of their franchise in order to be “in” on all the jokes. I get that Avengers 2 is related to this movie, and that the other hero movies tie in as well, but…. a lot of the stuff just goes over my head. It may be a plus to fans who keep up with the series, but to others it feels exclusive and off-putting.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. However, there was enough in it to keep me in a critical mindset throughout. I love superheroes, and action, and cool characters, and Hollywood films. I cannot stand sloppy plot and characters. I hope that as more movies come out in the future, I can meet a rare work that satisfies me yet.

The US National Day Of Prayer (A Reprise)

One of the most amazing miracles is God’s promise to be with us always. He hears our prayers, He answers our prayers, and through our prayers He works His wonders. The world often talks about the power of speech and words. I think they could never understand the full impact of words as a Christian understands the force of words through prayer. May every soul including mine bow to God in the midst of communion with Him through prayer.

A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Today is the National Day Of Prayer here in the US. In a country with the freedom to worship when and how and who we please, it seems a little odd that we have a designated National Day of Prayer. I’m glad we do because it makes me think more about the subject, but part of my thinking is that, for most of us, the National Day of Prayer means very little.

For one thing, prayer, as an activity in and of itself, has no efficacious value. Isaiah illustrated that most clearly in a passage about idols:

Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he…

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