Monday, February 18, 2013

The Book Thief

Book: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Edition: eBook, read on Overdrive
Read: February 2013
2007. First time
1,086 pages on OverDrive Reader
Rated: 31/2 out of 5

The story starts with Death's soliquey about what he sees and does not feel,how he is only the processor of souls, not a killer of people, how he tries not to be involved in human affairs. But he noticed this little girl, about nine or ten, called Liesel. The book is her story, told by Death.

We first meet Liesel when her brother dies, as they are being taken by their mother, who can no longer care for them, to a foster care agency. Death sees her as he takes her brother's soul. This is where she takes her first book, a gravedigger's guide. Death counts this as her first stolen book.the second is at a book burning in Nazi Germany. She sees a book which has not been destroyed, laying smoldering after the fire has been burnt out. Liesel's family is not Jewish, but the father is a communist. This leads the family to be in desperate straights. The father never appears in the story, even as a memory, well only to introduce the term, communist.

In between these two books, Liesel is given to her foster parents. The mother, Rosa, is a foul-mother, big woman. Most people in Molching are afraid of her. She seems totally into yelling at people, not only when they cross her, but when they get the remotely into her way. But deep, very deep underneath, she has compassion and empathy for those who truly hurt and needy. This comes through just a couple of times in the book.

In contrast, Hans the father, is a compassionate, but uneducated man. When Liesel has nightmares, Hans is there to comfort her. They get into the habit of reading together. This feeds into her love of reading. Hans provides a great deal of strength and comfort to Liesel, maybe not displacing her love for her own mother and brother, but at least creating a large room in Lisel's heart.

Rudy  from the first meeting, is in love with Liesel. But it is an unrequited love as Liesel thinks only of him as a good friend. It is Rudy who is her childhood companion. He alternately takes the lead and follows Liesel in their thefts of food, trinkets, and, yes, books. He does not see her visions in words as he has other dreams. Dreams of becoming the next Jesse Owens, even to the place where one night he covers himself in coal and runs a race in the dark at the local track.

Others characters make up the the scenery behind Liesel. There is Ilsa, the mayor's wife. She is the main "victim" of Liesel's book thievery. Isla knows that Liesel steals her books and does subtle things like keeping the window open to the library, setting out plates of cookies and the like. There is Frau Holtzapfel, Hans and Rosa's neighbor, which Rosa is at war with. But a truce happens when Liesel reads to Holtzapfel. And the list goes on of people whose life Liesel touches and is touched by.

As with any story dealing with Germany under Nazi rule, the war and oppression, including the Jews are a large part of the plot. The family comes into contact with a Jew, who asks for shelter. Their decision leads to some profound ramifications. It also indicates what type of people they are.

Death is portrayed as a person, a neutral person. He can be wherever people die, removing their souls from their body. As a person, he gets tired when numerous people die at once, such as when a bombing occurs. He says he does not take an interest in the people, but he does take special care with certain people. He has a special place for Liesel, first seeing her at her brother's death, and then at certain other key spots. He even picks up Liesel's diary when she loses it, and then returns it when she dies. Because of the impersonal nature of Death, his narration is flat. But is this how death is? Paul says, Death, where is your sting? death hurts, it is not gentle, into the night experience. It is not the intended order, but part of our corruption. Zusak does not say what Death does with the souls he gathers. But Death does have a boss-but Zusak does not say anything about him either. As much as Death is the narrator, Zusak does not say much more than this about him.

For a bibliophilic, the place of words and books is high on the list of things. Zusak places words high. Liesel, from her first book, falls in love with words. She wants to read with Hans. This is. a triangle. Liesel associates words with Hans and Hans is the door which causes Liesel to see the world which words create. But what Liesel sees is more than just words on a page. She has seen the effects of words of a monomagliac in action, how his words roused up a nation in patriotism and hate. She learns that words are dangerous. But she also sees the power of a man's word, causing him to stick his neck out for another human. Others seethe power of words in her. While a man raises up a nation with his words, others see how Liesel's words can start a movement to bring down this man through the truth of her words and action. As Luther's hymn says, one small word can fell him. It is the world shaker.

Zusak has a good feel of a totalitarian state, or at least what I think it would be like to live in one. There is a sense of depression. But not all, or even most are mindless drones. But there is a sense that people will adjust to the conditions and survive. There is a sense where you always need to conform. Such as Hans not being able to get work because he painted over anti-Semitic graffiti. There are those who believe in the leader, those who will favor the regime because of its benefits, those who love dominate and bully. But most just want to be left alone to live out their lives.

Who and how can ordinary people be heroic? Zusak's example is by following their word. Something small, such as I will do anything for you, twenty years before allows a man to live up to his word today. Do we flinch from our words? Or are they measured? Do we live by them? The Psalms says blessed is the man who does not go back on his word, even if it is to his own hurt. As you open one window of compassion, others will present itself. When do you say yes and how?

It is amazing the difference on when you read a book: Are you in a hurry? Tired? Energetic? It makes a difference in your perspective. The first time I read The Book Thief, I felt it to be a pretty flat book, oriented towards a mind which was pretty young and somewhat immature. Consequently, when my book group chose this book, I was not very enthusiastic. But, sometimes with fresh eyes, you can see more.

That is what happened on my second read. The main problem which I had was that Liesel does not show very much life or emotion. She seems to walk through the book without much need to be empathy with her. Not because she lacks suffering, she gets that with in boat loads. But there is a feeling of aloofness, until the end. It is only after she has lost those who loved her does she respond with emotion. That is not to say, she does not care as she goes out and suffers for some of the characters.

The change in my perspective is how I see the story. Previously, the story from death's perspective did not work for me. It seemed too gimmicky. But as I worked through the book a second time, it allowed for a third person to tell Liesel's story, without interacting with the characters. I could feel the suffering, the mind-numbing consequences of living in a totalitarian environment.

Is this a must read book? Probably not. Are you wasting your time by reading it? No!

Notes from my book group:

  • It was a long book, but good
  • Sad
  • Fascinating that it was narrated by Death
    • Death was given a person
    • In the book, it is alluded to that Death can be everywhere. But he is not omnipresent
  • Reading is power
  • Zukas gives good description, plot and character.

Good Quotes:
First Line: First the colors.
Last Line: I am haunted by humans.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Outliers: The Story of Success

Book: Outliers: The Story of Success
Author: Malcom Gladwell
Edition: Read on Overdrive
Read: January 2013
596 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

Gladwell's motif is to tell a story, then explain it in traditional turns. He then looks at other factors which bear on the outcome of the story. These other factors are not the obvious ones, but ones which seem to turn the story on its head. Gladwell does not change the outcome of the story, or degrade the people in the story, but does show that the popular rendering of the story may not be the entire picture.

     Definition of OUTLIER
 1.    a person whose residence and place of business are at a distance
 2.    something (as a geological feature) that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
 3.    a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample
    From Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Table of Contents:

Introduction: The Roseto Mystery "These people were dying of old age. That's it."
 1.    The Matthew Effect: "You don't even have to do any statistical analysis. You just look at it."
 2.    The 10,000 Hour Rule: "In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours."
 3.    The Trouble With Geniuses: "Knowledge of a boy's IQ is of little help if you are faced with a formful of clever boys."
 4.    Louis Terman's Error: "After protracted negotiations, it was agreed Robert would be put on probation."
 5.    The Rise of the Jewish Lawyer: "Mary got a quarter."
 6.    Harlan, Kentucky: "Die like a man like your brother did!"
 7.    Turnaround in the Skies: "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot."
 8.    Rice Paddies and Math Tests "No one who can rise before dawn, 360 days a year, fails to make his family rich."
 9.    Marquita's Bargain: "All my friends now are from KIPP."
CONCLUSION: A Jamaican Story "If a progeny of young colored children is brought forth, these are emancipated."


The first story is an example of what Gladwell is trying to do. He takes the town of Roseto in Pennsylvania. He talks about a couple of researchers who try to explain why people in this town's mortality rate is thirty percent less than other places. Also tracing down other factors such as genetics, diet, exercise, the researchers conclude it is because the people in this town have a strong sense of community. Gladwell takes this as an example of what he wants to do with people who are a success—look for the overlooked factors. But does he really do this? Or does he come up with certain casual factors?

For example, he looks at Canadian hockey players. He notes that there is a disproportionate number of players who are born at the start of the year who make the pro's. Gladwell traces how this could be possible: Canada's junior leagues cut off age is in January. So there is a tendency for those born in the earlier parts of the year to be bigger and more mature than the younger players. More attention and training is given to these players because they are better. As the years go by this attentions is built upon, giving the early month players a better advantage with more playing time and better training.

But is this the only reason? Gladwell notes the correlation, and the correlation does seem pretty strong. But this also seems like tossing a penny five times and having it come out heads each time. You may wonder about the coin, but what you experience with the coin toss probably will happen once out 32 times. Gladwell does not show this really does happen, but he speculates.

Outliers tells stories of  people who are successful. One of these is Bill Gates. G;adwe;; talks about the intelligence and savoy which Gates possesses. But behind the story is the opportunities and timing which Gates had. Born five years sooner, he would be too busy earning a living; five years later, he would be amongst the thousands of other smart people. Be born when he was, he was able to ride the tech wave. But even beyond that is the small things like having the rare opportunity to use a computer terminal before high school, somebody who gave a kid opportunity to develop some software, led to being able to him being prepared for his great opportunity.

I do not think Gladwell discounts intelligence, stamina or ability. He just sees that there is more to it than these things. I think he does see things which others have missed, but I am not sure he has a complete picture—he sees the outlying stat, and searches for meaning there.

He ends the book with a family story, how through a series of slave experiences in Jamaica, his family was able to succeed because they were light skinned. Because of this, his mother was able to get a loan to allow her to go to college and meet his father. Without all of this, he would not be the person whom he is.

  Gladwell is a pretty good storyteller Each of the chapters starts with a story about success, or failure to be a success, with an obvious thread in it. Gladwell then shows other factors which makes the story possible—those factors are not the usual ones given for the story—Bill Gates success being  smarts and insights, but also the opportunities and timing, for instance.

I think the weakness of the book is the reliance on inference of certain statistical anomalies. Such as noting how Canadian hockey players tend to be born in Winter and explaining the advantages given for this birth. While the interferences are eye opening, they also have the feel for being a partial reason for success.

This book, if nothing else, will give you reason to look behind the story being told. Is the outcome due to hard work and intelligence or happenstance? Most of the time, the stories show that both need to be there—the ground needs to be fertile for the seed to grow. But the water must be applied at the right time. Also what is not said is that many seeds were planted, but most of them did not become Sequioa's.

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: outlier 1) something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.
  • Last Line: My mother has done the same for me.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Amazing Grace

Book: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
Author: Eric Metaxas
Edition: Paperback, 2007
Read: February 2013
297 pages
Rated: 3½  out of 5

There is 23 chapters spanning Wilberforce's life from birth to death. Metaxas makes the connection between Wilberforce's life and his Christianity. You wonder if Wilberforce had not become a Christin, would he had cared about ending slavery? Metaxas traces how Wilberforce's early influences caused him to be sympathetic towards evangelical Christianity, even if his mother and grandfather was not. Through his uncle and aunt he encountered a great many  mid-18th century great Christians. But this was not proper, so he was brought back and feel into the normal upper class English debauchery until going on a trip with Issac Milner who showed Wilberforce a different side of Christianity and brought him back.

Metaxas shows how Wilberforce thought about leaving politics but was convince by people like John Newton that was where God wanted him to be—in the battle. From there, Wilberforce fought for the rest of his life to bring the end of slavery and start goodness to England.

Table of Context:
  • Foreword
  • Introduction 
  • Little Wilberforce
  • Into the Wide World
  • Wilberforce Enters Parliament
  • The Great Change
  • Ye Must Be Born Again
  • The Second Great Object: The Reformation of Manners
  • The Proclamation Society  
  • The First Great Object: Abolishing the Slave Trade
  • The Zong Incident
  • Abolition or Bust
  • Round One
  • Round Two
  • The Good Fight
  • What Wilberforce Endured
  • Two Loves
  • Clapham's Golden Age
  • Domestic Life at Clapham  
  • Victory!
  • Beyond Abolition
  • India 
  • Enforcing Abolition
  • Peace and Troubles
  • The Last Battle
  • Epilogue 
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments 
  • Faith Discussion Guide 
One of the things which turned the fight against slavery was the abhorrent conditions which the slaves were kept—both in the slave ships and the plantations in the West Indies. One wonders about the success of the abolitionist if conditions were more humane? Would there have been a need for the abolitionists?

How Wilberforce engaged his opponents was with respect and facts. This is a far cry from today's dealing. Whom do I see working this way today? I do not recall anybody on either side of the aisle doing this. Certainly not Obama. I had hopes for Romney, but he fell into the same routine. Wilberforce brings to remembrance that we are to treat each other as Jesus would have. You wonder if this is what John Newton saw in Wilberforce—the ability to treat others as God would have them be treated.

Wilberforce did not relegate himself to just one task, but wanted to spread throughout England what it would be like to be a Christian nation. He called his twin drives was the abolition of slavery and the bringing about of manners. The manners he was speaking about had to do with morality and ethics rather than just courtesy. This spread from providing a sense of justice in the criminal justice system of the time to preventing cruelty in animals. Wilberforce understood how Christianity needed to be the leaven in society.

This leaves the question of what do I see around me which is abhorrent to God's eyes and how will I work to change things? This is the main take away for me from this book.

 Wilberforce is dynamic and powerful-powerful not in the sense of having the position of a king, but from his talents and his character. That is very evident from the book. But I did not find the writing having that magical quality which made me “fall in love” with Wilberforce. The book does want me to know more about the man—previous to reading this book, I had read Wilberforce's book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity.I found the book hard to read, but well worth it.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, it is a good introduction. But I suspect one should dive in deeper to truly feel the magic of this life.

Good Quotes:

  • First Line: On August 24, 1759, William Wilberforce was born into a prosperous merchant family in the city of Hull.
  • Last Line: On that historic morning, as the sun rose, that new world was revealed at last as real, as having existed all along on the far side of the mountains through which William Wilberforce had been our guide.