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?

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

Unwelcome Guests in 1950s Korea

Cover art of The Guest.
Cover art of The Guest.

Hwang Sok-yong is a prolific South Korean author. He published The Guest in 2005, and I think it met with negative reviews amongst the Korean population. I guess they didn’t like the fact that this book portrays both North Koreans and South Koreans, both Christians and communists (which were the conflicting political forces during the Korean War), in a sympathetic light.

The book is about the Korean War. More specifically, it focuses on a guy named Ryu Yosop who lives in America in the present times. He gets a chance to go back and visit his hometown in North Korea through a special tourist program, and so travels back to his homeland, where he begins confronting the memories of the war during the mid-20th century and the ghosts of his past.

Literally. There are ghosts in this story. They pop out every once in a while to tell us their history and stuff.

As the book progresses, we get to hear all sides of the story. We hear why a Christian man thought he was doing the right thing in killing the communists, because the communists were devils trying to take away their land. We hear why a communist man thought he was justified in taking rich people’s lands, because those lands should rightly be distributed to the poor farmers who actually till it. We hear a guy in a neutral position who points out that everybody in the war was guilty, whether Christian or communist.

“Suddenly slamming his thick palm down on the table, Uncle Some shouted, ‘Show me one soul who wasn’t to blame!'”

I thought the book did a good job at presenting all sides of the stories with equal weight. Today’s society is pretty opposed to communism as a whole; the South Korean society still bears a lot of hate for communism because the bloody conflict happened within the last 50 years. The author tries reeeeeeaaaaaally hard to make sure the speaker representing the communist party doesn’t get “defeated” by the other voices in the story.

It’s a meaningful work. Not meant to offer a definitive solution, but working towards it, primarily by stimulating mutual communication between the parties. Where there is communication, there will be understanding, and when individuals begin to understand, there may be a potential for reconciliation. I think that’s the idea being conveyed.

As a literary work, the book doesn’t make it easy for you. The beginning is slow and a bit boring. The narrative perspective shifts back and forth between multiple people without any transition, warning, or identification. You have to struggle a bit to figure out which “I” is speaking now. Is it the Christian? The Communist? The protagonist? Maybe in a way, this is another one of Hwang’s strategies: make it hard to distinguish between each speaker, so that their identities begin to blend. Maybe they aren’t so different after all – just human beings, who all experienced hardship, misunderstanding, and ideological passion.

P.S. while the use of Biblical passages and Christian doctrines had a significant role in the book and the ideological war, I’d just like to point out that much of the Christian beliefs are misunderstood by the characters in this novel. Communists are not Satan’s minions; Christians are not meant to go out and kill political opponents in the name of God.

1 Corinthians 13 declares: “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” This is the real truth. There is no meaning outside love, no matter how many times people shout the name of Jesus. The fact that Christians were identified as one side of the Korean War is an unfortunate truth, but I hope this does not cause anyone to misunderstand the real truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which greatly differs from the beliefs of Hwang Sok-yong’s characters.

V is for Vendetta

V_for_vendettax

I read the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd last year, and it really tempted me to re-try the American graphic novel genre. The amount of literary sophistication and social criticism is insane. I haven’t ever watched the movie, which is the version most people seem to have encountered first, but that does not stop me from praising this thing – it’s one of the few works that I liked even when I did not like any of the characters in the story.

I mean, the guy in the mask? He always recites iambic pentameter and Shakespeare and stuff, and has a weird thing for masks and stupid riddle games. Plus, his name is V. It’s one letter. Not exactly conventional.

The girl that follows him around, Evey, is kind of annoying in her constant denial of reality.

The bad guys, whose names I forget, were somewhat instrumental in the plotline, but really they simply give a face to the invisible enemy that V is really fighting against. In other words, V considers them small fry, and we do too.

The above statements represent my honest, purely emotional reaction to the characters in this graphic novel. However, they also represent a very, very, VERY simplified and unfair judgment of every single one of them.

v-for-vendetta-1

V is masterful, in both design and in his constancy. He never wavers, never makes a mistake, and is singular in his purpose, and yet his superhuman invincibility and strength does not become a cliche like Superman. It instead functions as a way to identify him not as a person, but as an idea. The narrator states this almost directly – that it is pointless to find out whose face hides behind the mask of V. The mask itself, and the ideal it represents, is the true identity of this vigilante terrorist / anti-hero.

Evey represents the weak, helpless, conformist, emotional, human side in all of us. She bends to social pressure and is willing to follow false doctrines even when she knows they are wrong, because that is the easy way out. As she follows V around, she has no idea what’s really happening and does not understand what V is trying to do. I think she gets so frustrating and annoying because readers recognize this vulnerable, deplorable, foolish side of her in themselves. After all, none of us identify with V. With a lack of characters to identify with, the plot forces us to identify with a character we probably wouldn’t want to empathize with otherwise.

The work confronts us, reflects and refracts us, and attempts to glimpse at those dark corners of society and the human heart – in graphic novel form.

It may be time to re-evaluate that much-abused genre, yes?


V

The Woman of Colour

“The Woman of Colour: A Tale”
Anonymous
edited by Lyndon J. Dominique

I encountered this book in one of my college English classes, just a few weeks after I watched the 2013 movie “Belle.” Coincidence? Maybe. Fate? Uh, no. But definitely some food for thought. I don’t believe the book and the movie are both about the same woman, but both seem to draw some connection with this painting from 1779 of a certain “Dido Elizabeth Belle” with her companion “Lady Elizabeth Murray”:

Dido-Elizabeth-Belle-Painting

I think a lot of people find a strange fascination in this public image of a mixed-race woman, painted during a time when slavery was still a thing. The movie “Belle” apparently drew inspiration from this portrait, and the story of Belle is a fictionalized, dramatized version of this real-life woman’s story.

Belle_poster
All rights to this movie poster for “Belle” (2013) belong to the movie makers and affiliated producers, designers, etc.

On the other hand, I think “The Woman of Colour” does not refer to Dido Belle at all; in fact, there’s hardly a connection, except that Lyndon J. Dominique’s recently published version of it has this painting on the cover.

woman of colour_cover

Oh, and Olivia Fairfield, the protagonist who is the “woman of color” in the story, has a Black handmaid named Dido. That’s probably the extent of the literal connections there.

But yeah, of course, they share that feature of being a colored, gendered literary work. That’s controversy times two.

Personally, I don’t think modern readers would think very highly of “The Woman of Colour” at first glance. This girl Olivia is not a die-hard feminist who fights for female and racial equality, and she’s not exactly in an epic battle against insurmountable societal prejudices. It’s not like she’s working hard to meet and conquer the man of her life, either. Not exactly a romance novel, or a novel of manners (aka Jane Austen), or even a cry for female autonomy, this book feels more quiet – just a woman who’s a little different from other people, trying to live the way she thinks is right.

Her values fall surprisingly close to those held by her white British counterparts: she displays a passive acceptance, even acknowledgement, of British devaluation of Blacks and slaves in a way that defies conventional abolitionist writing. Olivia Fairfield is British. She is coloured, she is female, but still British in her writing and in her thinking.

“‘Ah! my good sir,’ said I, ‘I know what is right, and I trust the Almighty will suport me in the due performance of it.'” – Olivia Fairfield

I think in such a diversely invested character, the strengths and flaws of each of these people groups comes into a more direct tension with each other, letting the reader watch these often contradictory values play out. See who wins. See who makes sense, or who doesn’t. See what Olivia decides to do in the end: marry a rich husband, get revenge, go back to Jamaica where she is from, or something else? This decision holds sway over how we can characterize the book: a satire? A novel of manners? Abolitionist? Feminist? Comedy? Tragedy? None of the above? All of the above?

“Friend. – You have not rewarded Olivia even with the usual meed of virtue – a husband!” – from DALOGUE BETWEEN THE EDITOR AND A FRIEND.

Comparing it to the movie “Belle,” there’s that definite similarity: Belle is also a British woman. Not born, but raised in England as a lady of ranking. Her manners reflect this, and we can see that the people around her (aka white people of high British society) are surprised at this. How is it that a Black woman can conform to the British social rules? This question they ask frames the discourse about slavery, racism, and gender roles throughout the movie, much like “The Woman of Colour”…..though in the end, the triumph of Belle is a bit more pronounced and obviously rewarded than that of Olivia.

We’ve come a long way since these times of slavery, but racism is still a hot issue that gets people thinking and gets others mad. It’s there, under the thin parchment of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s gotten a lot better at hiding itself, then exploding out with violent ferocity through cases like the Ferguson shooting. I think productions like these can, in the very least, remind people that this is still a problem today. In this reminder, there will be thoughts, conversations, debates, even arguments…and hopefully, all this will allow the anonymous writer of “The Woman of Colour” to eventually claim a public name for himself, without fear of retribution.

Source of quotes: Anonymous. The Woman of Colour. Ed. Lyndon J. Dominique. New York: Broadview Editions, 2008. Print.

Crazy Love – a slice of Francis Chan

Reading through Christian books always turns out as one of three experiences:

1. I am edified, encouraged, and enabled to go out and live out the Word of God in my life.

2. I objectively realize the truth of the contents, but I can’t get past the horrible writing style.

3. I feel queasy while reading, and after a few days of thinking about it I figure out that it’s heresy.

Non-fiction Christian books generally tend to fall into #1 or #3. Fiction books fall into #2 most of the time – especially recently published ones. (I feel a strong need to put a disclaimer here: the quality of Christian literature should not be determined based on the uselessly large amounts of Christian romance novels in print right now.)

Francis Chan’s Crazy Love is one of those #1-type non-fiction books. It’s about God’s love. His love that is so big that it’s crazy. But in an infinitely good way.

I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I’ll hold off on any definite comments, but so far I have had to rethink my life more than once…always a good sign. That one chapter called “You May Not Finish This Chapter” just says it all in that title. Hey, you may not finish reading this blogpost! Are you ready for the moment you die? It may be right now. It may be tomorrow. No, really. It could actually be right now.

That’s mind-blowing, eye-opening, and definitely makes you re-consider what you’ll do before going to bed tonight.