The Book Thief and the power of words

The Book ThiefWhen you start a book and the narrator is the voice of Death, you know you won’t be reading a happy book.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak definitely wasn’t the happiest of tales – it takes place in a small German town during the heart of the Second World War after all. Through Death’s eyes, we’re introduced to Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is seeing her young brother die as she rides on a train with him and her mother. At the next stop they find a grave yard to bury him, and this is where Liesel finds her first book,The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

We find out that Liesel and her brother were being sent to foster parents as her mother escaped persecution for her and her husband’s alleged Communist leanings. Liesel, alone, is raised by Rosa and Hans Hubermann who appear to be the most opposite of people. Rosa is crass, loud and always calling everyone a Saukerl or “Pig” and Hans is a gentle painter who plays the accordion and has a personality that draws Liesel in and helps her open up to her new surroundings.

Throughout the rest of the story, Death, though admittedly busy during those years, takes a keen interest in Liesel’s life as she attends school and grows into her teen years, stealing more books along the way and learning to read them through the help of her foster father.

What I found interesting about much of the book was that Zusak focuses on the lives of the characters as war is happening around them, but since it’s through the lens of a young girl (as relayed by Death), it doesn’t go into too much detail about explaining the politics of the time. We find out that Hans doesn’t support the Nazi party, but still hangs a flag whenever a parade passes through; Liesel and her friend Rudy Steiner are forced to steal food because of rationing throughout the country; And, Rosa’s laundry businesses that she runs from home begins to suffer as the wealthier neihbours become unable to afford her services.

It’s not until Hans answers a promise made long ago by taking in a Jewish man by the name of Max Vandenburg that the story becomes truly serious. Max is extremely malnourished when he arrives, but soon he establishes a close bond with Liesel. The two have frequent nightmares about losing loved ones and also enjoy storytelling. Their bond grows as Max shares his stories with her.

One of the stories spoke of how Hitler rose to power, not with his fists or guns, but with words. Zusak often brings up the power of words and what they can do to people, both good and bad. When bomb raids began approaching their town, they congregated in a local basement and Liesel began reading to everyone there. The words calmed everyone and made them briefly forget that at any moment, they could die.

We have to remind ourselves that words matter. They can persuade you to do anything from buying a product to persecuting an entire race of people. The Book Thief does an excellent job of getting this point across and as a communicator for a living, I can appreciate his message. If you’re a lover of words, then I recommend reading this one. I give The Book Thief a 4/5.

The Debt isn’t your average spy film

The Debt

The Debt has all the elements that make for an exciting espionage movie, and then some.

The story has two intertwined timelines: The first takes place in 1967 as we see three Mossad agents on a mission to capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi war criminal, with the purpose of bringing him to trial in Israel. The second takes place in 1997 with the same agents, much older now, dealing with new found information that sees the case come back to life.

Because of the way the story is told, we get to see an evolution for the three main characters, Rachel (Jessica Chastain & Helen Mirren), David (Sam Worthington & Ciaran Hinds) and Stephan (Marton Csokas & Tom Wilkinson). I was particularly drawn to the storyline taking place in 1967 East Germany. I could feel the deep rooted anger and pain of the characters, especially David’s, as they sought to bring justice to a man who caused so much pain to Jewish families. I haven’t seen Worthington (Avatar) act prior to this movie, but he played his role with a quiet sadness. Out of the three, his character was the most distraught by Vogel, having lost his entire family in the Holocaust. You could feel the pain emanate off him, and it was great fodder for their charge to use against the group.

Jessica Chastain (The Help) was absolutely brilliant as young Rachel, and was a great example of a strong female lead actress. She shares many tension-filled scenes with Christensen, and once again through his brilliance, you can see her vulnerability as she’s captured by his charmful, manipulative ways. On top of the emotional scenes with Christensen, Chastain is also caught in a love triangle with the other two agents. The pain caused by this has a deep effect on the characters, especially the fragile David, who never seemed to recover from it, or the mission.

The older version of the characters, all played by great actors, isn’t the main focus of the story, but offers a way for the audience to see how the actions from a generation ago have affected, and are still affecting them today. While not as thrilling (for the most part), it acts as a way to tie the loose ends together in a smart way that makes you feel for what the burden they’ve carried over the past 30 years.

The Debt wasn’t anything like what the trailers portrayed it as, but in the end it was pleasant surprise. I give it a 4/5.

Fall of Giants: A giant novel worth reading

Ken Follett’s fictional account of the events that lead up to-, the battles of-, and after effects of the First World War, felt like a historic retelling of one of the major cultural turning points of the modern era.

Fall of Giants is the first in a series of epic novels that, through fictional characters and representations of actual ones, takes the reader through 13 1/2 years of wars, revolutions and cultural movements. The characters span across the globe in five different families (American, German, Russian, English and Welsh). Each of the people introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

Follett tells these individual stories, and many others with great attention to detail and with much research to backup the historical happenings of the time. I’ve said many times in my reviews that I’m more attached to novels that have a strong set of characters. I like to know as much about their lives as I possibly can like how their emotions handle different situations or in this case their political views. The characters are all pretty much set in their ways, so in terms of development, it doesn’t occur in most cases, but I feel for them when they’re defeated, even in the case of Earl Fitzherbert.

Another completely different picture of the war was painted for me after reading this. Follett is a respected author who has done many different war-themed novels, so I’m going to go out on a limb and trust the research he did into Fall of Giants. I kind of guessed much of what I knew about the war was propaganda and that it wasn’t the entire picture. Follett takes the reader into the mindset of the average labourer in England or Russia and shows just how conditions were for them, and why things happened the way they did. He also shows how the powers of the time dealt with the events leading up to the war, and eventually those that ended it.

It took me a long time to get through this 985 page beast, but I really enjoyed it. If you haven’t picked it up already I highly recommend you do so. I give Fall of Giants a 4/5.

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