Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good Reading Weather

Oh, it's good reading weather here in Minnesota. We are enjoying temperatures hovering around zero, negative double digits coming later this week, and temporarily frozen pipes (a situation now resolved). As long as your furnace is working, it's the best time to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea.

The House of Stairs is the third book I've read by Barbara Vine and I believe it is one of her earlier books. In it we meet Elizabeth, a young aspiring writer; Cosette, a widow determined to forge a new sort of life that is quite Bohemian; Christabel, a beautiful woman whom we know has murdered, and a host of other mostly eccentric characters. The House of Stairs is the house that Cosette purchases after her husband dies and she fills it all sorts of people ostensibly to help her, but in fact they really just keep her company on her dime. Too much more of the plot and I'll have given it all away. Vine takes her time telling this story, as she always seems to do, and we do not find out all the secrets until the end. Vine's mysteries are more about the journey than they are about the answers and I think that's what I enjoy so much about them.

The book I finished last night was one that just kept popping up everywhere - on all the blogger 'best of 2007' posts, and even since then in numerous posts. The book itself is covered with praise so it is a critical and popular success, it seems. I don't generally walk into a bookstore, buy a book, and feel compelled to read it immediately, but that is just what happened with The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. I was resistant to this book at first: narrated by death? The bold asides starting on the first page and continuing throughout the book? I thought perhaps this book was not for me. I was wrong. In a nutshell, The Book Thief is the tale of Liesel Meminger, a young girl sent to live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. She is illiterate and arrives there with a book she has stolen. Liesel does learn to read and thus begins a love affair with books and words. All the while, the war goes on around her affecting her in ways big and small, in a more general sense and also more personally. Liesel's family gives shelter to a Jewish man and this adds yet another dimension to her life. The story sounds simple really, but it is beautifully and compellingly told. This was one of those books I got lost in, forgetting everything around me. At the very least, this book has such an interesting viewpoint, that of a small German town whose people are just trying to get by and are not interested in waging a war against their fellow citizens. Certainly this is not a topic I've read much about. In the event I am not the last person to read this book, I do recommend it to anyone.

When I finished the book last night I was thinking about a scene in The Sound of Music show, which we just went to see a few weeks ago. Do you remember the scene in the film when the Von Trapp family sings in the contest? During the show, it was staged such that we, the audience, were the audience of that event, and suddenly as it began, I noticed a flash of red. Looking right, I saw that from the box closest to the stage was hanging a Nazi flag and the box contained Nazi officers. I looked towards the stage to see (and we were quite close, third row) Nazi guards were standing in the audience. When it was discovered that the Von Trapps were missing after their performance, the guards ran around the theatre with their flashlights bright and burning. It was a very strange experience, one that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I felt that flag as a symbol of fear and terror. I appreciated that it was done, that I felt for just a moment that feeling of being watched. Not that I would ever have been on that side of things; my father's side of the family is Jewish and were it not for the immigration of my great grandparents during the time of the Russian pogroms I would not be here today.


Bookfool said...

The Book Thief is on my all-time favorites list, permanently. It's amazing.

As to The Sound of Music - yep, I remember it well. I saw the movie at a drive-in theater when I was 5 years old and my parents had the soundtrack, so I still know all those songs by heart. That must have been quite an experience, seeing the "Nazi officers" in the aisles, as they were in real life. Horrifying.

Cath said...

I'm so pleased that you found The Book Thief as moving as myself and many others. It made me start to wonder what it must have been like to experience the rise of Nazism. A book I read towards the end of last year, Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner, answered my questions very well and I highly recommend it. And yes, The Sound of Music, I tend to forget how well that deals with the impact of Nazism - it tends to be the music we all remember.

Nan said...

Wow! What a great, great idea or device to use in the play. It gives me shivers.

And I may well be that "last" person you were referring to, who hasn't read it. As you wrote, I didn't think I would enjoy it the least bit. But maybe...

Tara said...

Bookfool, I'm so glad I read it- I'm still thinking about it days later. My husband and I both grew up with Sound of Music loving mothers and we have passed it on to our little one.


"I tend to forget how well that deals with the impact of Nazism - it tends to be the music we all remember."

I think that is so true. No matter how many times I watch/see it, I'm always surprised by the change in the tone from the first to the second half. Thank you for the recommendation - I will check it out.

Nan, yes 'device' that is the word I was searching for. It was so surreal - it was so disturbing yet I was so impressed that they were able to make me feel that way.

Danielle said...

So glad you are enjoying the Barbara Vine books. Even her so-so stories are still entertaining reads, but I pretty much have liked all the Vine books I've read. I liked The Book Thief as well, but it must have been the mood I was in when reading it--it was sort of heavy and depressing, so it's not one that I felt like I wanted to own. Still, ultimately a very good story.

BooksPlease said...

The Book Thief is one of the books that I've been resisting reading for some time, but I did buy it towards the end of last year. I still haven't read it, so I'm pleased to see that you liked it. I will read it this year!

melanie said...

I don't know why I waited so long to read this one... I'm 1/3 through it. Look forward to talking about it more when I finish.

Tara said...

Danielle, Barbara Vine is fantastic - I'm go glad I read her, and you are a big reason why! I tend to like depressing books so The Book Thief was right up my alley in that way.

BooksPlease, I look forward to your thoughts on TBT - I had also been resisting it.

Mel, me either. I can't wait to hear what you think!

Cornflower said...

I must read The Book Thief as I keep on seeing the most enthusiastic reviews of it.

Lesley said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed The Book Thief. It was one of my favorite books from last year. And thank you for sharing the story about watching The Sound of Music. I've never actually seen the movie, but it's one I keep meaning to watch. I didn't know it had such substance to it.

Tara said...

Karen, I hope you do; I would love to know your thoughts on it.

Lesley, it's funny with the sound of music..I've seen it so many times and I'm always a bit jarred by the war portion of the film. The first half is light for the most part - but the tone in the second half is so different. My husband and I grew up on it, and my daughter is as well. It's a classic and the music is wonderful.

Elaine said...


Forgive me for sending you this long link but this is my posting on Book Thief which I cannot repeat here as it would take too long. Suffice it to say it was a book that stayed with me for a long time and, as you will see, reduced me to tears. Quite wonderful

Karen Tintori said...

Ok, now I must read The Book Thief! Especially if it is a book that stays with you long after you've closed the final pages.

One of my all-time favorites -- and a book that is still with me more than a year later -- is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I'm in the middle of preparing a guest blog about it on a UK blogger's site.

Karen Tintori, author
The Book of Names w/Jill Gregory
A mystical Jewish thriller

Tara said...

Karen, yes, do read The Book Thief! I also loved The Time Traveler's Wife and would love to read your blog about it.