Posts filed under 'Over 375 pages'

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief”

“The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas” by John Boyne and “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a few months since I’ve read these books—one after the other—but I felt like I needed some space away from them before recommending them to you. Though students often ask for “Holocaust book” recommendations, it’s pretty depressing to read too many at once. However, these two deserve to be read. Unlike many ‘young adult’ books that are for kids in the fifth grade and up, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief” are truly for high school and beyond.

The main character in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is Bruno, a small inquisitive nine-year-old living in Berlin, Germany during World War II. Though the narrative is third person, the point of view is Bruno’s. Although his father is a high-ranking officer, and Hitler (whom Bruno calls “the fury” because Fuhrer is a word he doesn’t know) comes to visit Bruno’s home, the boy has no knowledge of the war, nor any understanding of the Holocaust.

Bruno’s innocence is the one big problem I have with this novel. It’s not that he should understand the Holocaust—at that time, who could have imagined it, especially a little boy? It’s that he has no knowledge of Nazis or anti-Semitism. I gather from several other books on the period that being in the ‘Hitler Youth’ was vital for children if their parents were not to be ostracized. Bruno would have had a little uniform, gone to meetings, marched, and have been indoctrinated. He would have addressed others by saying “Heil Hitler” and he would have known who the Fuhrer was.

But seeing the story of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a total innocent helps the reader to see how truly out of balance Bruno’s world is. When his father is promoted to ‘Commandant’ and the family moves to ‘Out with’ (as Auschwitz sounds to the boy), Bruno can see a death camp from his window, only 50 yards away, but he doesn’t know why the people in it wear striped pajamas. As there are no children to play with (except his twelve-year-old sister, who plays with dolls), Bruno goes exploring and meets a boy who is on the other side of the fence, Shmuel. Though on opposite sides of the fence with very different lives, the boys maintain a friendship through conversation and imagination.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” made my thoughts jump all the way back to a story I read in third grade (and believe me that’s a big leap!) entitled “They Grind Exceedingly Small,” in which a father, through his own acts of selfishness and disregard for others, loses all that matters. (I guess that wasn’t an appropriate story for a third grader, but my teacher thought I was a good reader and gave me a high school literature book to read from.) This quiet book of two boys’ lives ends horrifyingly, heartbreakingly.

Perhaps there is no other way to end a book that takes place in Germany (or Poland) during World War II, but “The Book Thief” is another heart breaker. Even so, I loved reading it—it’s one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read—because the writing is so good, the form of the narrative is creative, and the characters became so important to me.

“The Book Thief” is narrated by Death—and he’s not the cruel being you’d imagine, but he witnesses plenty of cruelty and pointless suffering as he arrives to take souls on their journeys. He becomes fascinated by a little girl, Liesel Meminger. He first ‘meets’ her when she is on a trip with her mother and brother to Molching, Germany, where the children are to live in a foster home because their mother has been branded a “Kommunist.” Liesel’s brother dies on the trip, and it is at his funeral that she steals her first book, a gravedigger’s manual.

Liesel can’t read. However once she is living in her foster home in a poor working class neighborhood, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her. He is a gentle man and helps Liesel through her nightmares about her brother. He plays the accordion and sleeps in a chair so that Liesel won’t be alone. Rosa, Leisel’s foster mother, is much more gruff—and yet, she has a kind heart, too, despite her use of pejorative language.

We readers not only love these people, but also the neighbor boy Rudy, who wants to be like Jesse Owens and becomes Liesel’s best friend. And when Max arrives, we are riveted, knowing that little good can come to those who refuse to join the Nazi party or to those who are Jewish.

Though Max had a friend who was helping him to escape the Nazis, he has been drafted into the army. Max’s one chance for survival is to get to Molching and find Hans. Years before, in World War I, a Jewish man saved Hans’s life. That man was Max’s father, and Hans had promised him that he would do anything for him. So with Max hidden in the basement, Liesel, though young, must keep the secret.

In the meanwhile, Liesel has learned to steal books from the library of the mayor’s wife (who allows this because she, too, cares for Liesel, a reader.) It is by reading that Liesel calms her terrified neighbors in a bomb shelter. Through all, Max and Liesel become true friends, helping each other to survive their losses. In a beautiful and ironic gesture, Max paints the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf so that he can write a story and paint pictures for Liesel—a gift of a book, a most meaningful choice.

I rarely love characters more than I did these. I wanted them to survive—all of them—but of course, this is Germany in World War II.

I, along with some friends who’ve read “The Book Thief” think it might be a good replacement for “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the eighth grade curriculum. If you have the opportunity, you should read both “The Book Thief” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” If you are short on time, you should read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (which is a small book). If you have time for one longer book, and you want to remember it for the rest of your life, read “The Book Thief.”

1 comment May 7, 2009

“Twilight” and “New Moon”

“Twilight” and “New Moon” by Stephanie Meyer

Here’s my confession: I hate the “Twilight” series. It has some of the worse writing I have ever read.

I’ve spent several evenings trying to get through the whole thing. I managed the first book, “Twilight.” I tried the second book, “New Moon,” but I could only stand about one-third of it. I wanted to like it–or at least get through all four books–because so many students like it, because I guess the whole world, except me, likes it.

But, seriously, what good is a vampire boyfriend? I’m thinking Edward is perfect for teen girls because he is dangerous, what with his ability to suck the life out of Bella, but he’s harmless, too, because he has to stay away from her and not make sexual advances since it’s too risky. So I guess if I were younger, I’d think of this as a sort of pure, magical love, too. But having been around boys (and later men) who suck the life out of people, I’ve learned that they just aren’t so much fun to hang out with as you might think they would be.

Bella, as a character, is even worse than Edward. Whine, whine, whine–oh, she does stop for frequent klutzy maneuvers that put everyone in danger. But it doesn’t take her long to get back to pouting. ‘Oh, poor me, it’s my 18th birthday and people want to celebrate it and give me flowers and plan a party–how thoughtless! Why can’t they just let me emo my way through the day? Waa, waa–why don’t I get to be an undead, icy vampire who has to suck fresh blood to exist?’

And the writing! Stephanie Meyer is the Queen of the Adverb. He ‘coldly’ this, he ‘coldly’ that. I can’t figure out what’s thrilling about Edward coldly kissing Bella. I know they have this pure love, but I’m guessing that at some point they’ll marry. With Edward being the undead ice king that he is, if this marriage should include any intimacy, I hope there’s someone nearby with an ice pick and a super hot hair dryer.

So–I want to be enlightened. And I have three prizes to offer to any COHS students who can make a good go of it. Make a comment–tell me why you love this book. I’ll pick the three best answers (totally arbitrary–my opinion) and give these prizes:

Third: A biography (book) of the actor who plays Edward

Second: A “Twilight” poster

First: A book about the making of the “Twilight” movie–lots of color photos and star interviews.

8 comments April 22, 2009

“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas is a send-up of consumer-society and corporate marketing at the expense of young people. All the characters are ‘cool because they’re uncool,’ hip twenty-somethings. If you are a deep-thinking young person who doesn’t want to be ‘branded,’ I’m recommending this book for you.

Alice Butler is sent to company retreat by her British employer, PopCo. PopCo is a market-savvy, cutting edge toy company that employs young, talented folks to get into the minds of children (they even have a ‘daycare’ at the retreat where little ones are market tested). An odd girl and loner for most of her life, Alice is recruited by PopCo because she is good at mathematical puzzles, code-breaking and cryptanalysis. Her new assignment is to create a product for the teenage girl market that will enrich the company. As a ‘POW’ at ‘thought camp’—the title for the company retreat—Alice journals about her own youth, the death of her mother, the desertion of her father, and her odd upbringing by loving, eccentric and super-smart grandparents. She reflects on a locket given to her by her grandfather which seems to contain the clue to an old puzzle—which in turn will lead to lost treasures. More and more, Alice realizes how deeply unethical the practices of PopCo are—and how she can break from the spell of the commercially-driven workplace.

I recommend this book only to mature readers because it has, besides the great code-breaking puzzles and fun information on cryptanalysis, a budding romance, characters who drink wine, and a few who smoke marijuana. I’m recommending it to my own 16-year-old son because he hates being ‘branded,’ but other parents might think their own teens are not mature enough to sort through the twenty-something lifestyle. (I figure that if I could read all that Sidney Sheldon sort of trash like “The Other Side of Midnight” when I was sixteen and suffer no character loss, a good book like “PopCo” is just fine.)

By the way, this is a long book—about 500 pages. I mention this because so many of you look for books that are 400 or more pages long.

January 28, 2008


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