One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 8

The Book ThiefBook-Cover-the-book-thief-by-markus-zusak-5681586-318-500

By Markus Zusak (2005)

While most people tend to read a book first and then see the movie, often because that’s the order of their release, I’m a proponent of the opposite – movie first, then book.  It doesn’t always work, but the philosophy stems from the common complaint of book-movie:  there were good parts from the book that were deleted from the movie.  When you see the movie and then read the book, guess what?  You get what seems like bonus scenes instead of deleted scenes.

After having seen The Book Thief in theaters a few years ago, I had been looking forward to eventually reading the book, and it was not at all disappointing or redundant.  What confused me at the very opening of the movie was the narrator – Death.  He didn’t really have much of a part in the film, but his role in the book is dominant because, obviously, he’s narrating.  It was great to see his point of view, his interpretation, and even his occasional sympathy.

The story opens during WWII when a Russian mother of two who has become a mother of one, and then a mother of none.  After her husband leaves her and her son dies, she gives up her daughter Liesel Meminger to foster parents in Germany hoping the pre-adolescent blonde will have a better future.  Her new parents are an older couple, Hans and Rosa Huberman.

Hans is a painter who appreciates music and other arts, is a house painter by trade, and bonds easily with Liesel.  Rosa is more strict and not hesitant to throw insults that include biting profanity.  The pre-adolescent girl has trouble getting along with classmates because of her inability to read German, but she eventually learns with help from Hans.  She is at first pestered but then befriended by Rudy Steiner, a physically gifted neighbor who seems like the prototypical blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Nazi brown shirt.

It’s a story about very simple people living and surviving through extremely complex moments in history and the complex characters who enter and exit our lives in connection to those complex moments.  It shows how a global war trickles down to the little people who are, at least for a time, a very safe distance from the front.

Though The Book Thief can be called a “coming of age” story, it is much more than that.  It embodies the persecution of German Jews, the recruitment of Nazis, the pressure on citizens to join the party “or else,” and a girl abandoned by her family – all seen through the eyes of Death.  It has been marketed as young adult literature, but it’s a book I highly recommend to anyone, any age.

Dark Placesdark

Gillian Flynn (2009)

Warning –  a slight but not full spoiler at the end.  I don’t reveal who did it, but I point out someone who didn’t do it.

I liked the movie Gone Girl.  However, because the story involves some pretty intricate twists, I didn’t bother reading it because I already knew where it would be going and other who read it said the film and book were nearly identical.  I had nothing to gain by reading it, so instead I went for something else by Flynn – Dark Places.

We begin by meeting Libby Day, now in her 30’s and the sole survivor and key witness of a mass murder that wiped out her mother and two sisters 20-something years prior.  Her brother Ben, about 16 at the time of the murders and whose friends included amateur Satanists, was the only suspect and has been locked up about 20 years.

Libby had been living off a managed trust, but the well has run dry and she needs options.  When an underground group of self-proclaimed “investigators” offers Libby some cash to talk about the murders, she has little choice but to accept.  They do more than just talk, and they eventually convince Libby that she might have been wrong when she swore Ben was guilty.

What doesn’t work for me is how quickly Libby seems to doubt herself all these years later.  It seems safe to say that if she didn’t need the money, she wouldn’t have been in contact with the underground group.  She basically seems a bit stupid and desperate to say anything anyone wants to hear, as long as they have an envelope of cash handy.

These amateur sleuths seem to know a great deal more than the police, assuming what they’re offering as evidence is true, but there isn’t much of a reason to assume that.  The story is filled with too many possibilities, including the estranged father, the bookie, the drug connection, the Satanists, and the mysterious girlfriend.  It seemed like the author was having too much fun playing with me, shifting a little blame all around and then taking it back again.

I didn’t enjoy the narrative style, leaping around from Libby in first-person present day to the mother Patty and brother Ben in the hours leading up to the murders.  There are two things that are clear – Ben and Patty (in a deceased past tense) know exactly who committed the murders.  As we follow Patty’s POV, we don’t exactly see what happens.  When we see Ben’s POV, we naturally find out the truth.  Prior to the climax, so much time is committed to showing Ben as likely guilty that if he really is guilty, the reader would say, “Yeah, like we didn’t see that coming.”  And if he isn’t guilty, the reader would say, “You’re really going to have to provide a great explanation why it wasn’t him.”  I’m not going to give it away, but I can only say that neither way seems satisfying due to the author’s over-the-top manipulation.

I was annoyed by some of the mistakes in police procedure.  For example, the idea that a boy is arrested and charged with a crime without the parents being informed.  How easily an uneducated, computer-illiterate person was able to locate an unlisted number on a laptop in the middle of nowhere without a wi-fi connection.  How often several characters say they need to “get out of Dodge.”  A barely educated character who wasn’t born at the time of the movie or the real event but compares herself to Karen Silkwood (look it up if you need to).  The book was sloppily written, evidence being a little more than just a handful of tense issues, flipping from “is” to “was” and back again on the same page too often.

* * * Little bit of a spoiler here * * *

Here’s what I don’t like when it comes to a “who dun it”:  a throwaway character barely mentioned in one paragraph early on in the story turns out to be the murderer.  That’s cheap.  There were at least four valid suspects throughout the story, all with good enough motives, yet the murderer turns out to be someone just barely there long enough so a reader will say, “Oh, yeah, I remember.”  It made me want to throw the book into a fireplace.  I did not like that one bit.  Not recommended.

Philip Roth (2010)

Steven King said that genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  That’s pretty much the case with Nemesis, but please don’t take that as a negative.  I wasn’t overwhelmed by this book, but I definitely enjoyed it enough to recommend it.

Bucky Cantor is an extraordinary man.  He’s an emblem of positive thinking, determination, and dedication.  The 23-year old physical education teacher takes a summer job as a playground director in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, a family-oriented area of Newark.  It’s 1944, and a polio epidemic is about to begin.  At first there are a few scattered cases around the city until it focuses mainly on the Jewish kids in Bucky’s area.

Slowly at first, then quickly, boy after boy succumbs to the crippling and sometimes deadly disease, yet Bucky and others insist that the boys need the fresh air and exercise.  Most agree that the boys need something to keep their minds off those who have fallen, and Bucky is doing everything he can to help.  However, when he’s offered a much better job far away from polio-plagued Newark, his self-described loyalty is tested.

As this is literary fiction, we spend nearly as much time learning about Mr. Cantor’s family history and childhood events that shaped him into such an admired and upstanding citizen and representative of the Jewish community.  As described early by King, this also means that not very much is going to happen.  There are not great upheavals of plot, no menacing conflicts, and no clashes of titans.  Just good people put in unusual circumstances in which their values are tested.

The story seems to be told from a third-person omniscient point of view.  However, about one-third in there’s a barely noticeable drop of a pronoun that made me think something in another direction.  Later, nearly at the end, we realize who the narrator is.  There’s nothing startling about this sleight of hand with the narrator.  However, what it allows is for a deeper conversation to take place in the last few chapters that could only be revealed if the narrator were actually one of the characters in the story.

There’s nothing outstanding about the book.  There’s nothing that screams, “Oh you really MUST read this.”  But if you’re having trouble finding anything, it’s a good choice.  It’s a great exercise in creating a likable, believable character who you’d be proud to know and who does his best when others are ready to give up.  If you’d like to read my favorite novel by Roth, look for The Plot Against America.


Emma Donoghue (2010)

Contains spoilers!

It’s Jack’s birthday. He’s now 5.  He spends the day in his “room” with his mother, whom he calls Ma.  He spends every day with Ma and in the same room.  Well, it’s not so much a room as it is a prison, an outbuilding, like a strong shed, where Ma has been for about seven years since she was abducted as a 19-year old while on her way to a college class.  That’s when Nick pretended his dog needed help, and he talked her into getting into his pickup truck to help.

Room begins as an excellent writing lesson on minimalism and characterization.  I’m annoyed by stories about millionaires in limos and private jets who take us to exotic places and do exciting things.  I prefer stories about just plain ol’ folks to get into some unusual situations that I can actually identify with.  This started off as a good one, but I’ll tell you now, before the spoilers, that I can’t recommend this unless you’re a writer who wants to see a good example of an unreliable narrator.  More about that soon.

Everything is seen from Jack’s POV.  When Ma makes breakfast by counting out and rationing each piece of cereal, Jack doesn’t realize how hungry they are and how they’re being treated.  When the high point of their day is jumping on the bed for exercise, Jack has no idea how his bones and muscles might suffer from underdevelopment.  When Nick shows up occasionally through a locked door with a keypad, bringing either a little bit of food or wanting sex with Ma, Jack has no idea what’s really happening.  The reader has more than a small clue, and it’s very well done.  In writing, this is what’s referred to as an “unreliable narrator,” and there are few examples as good as this one.  Unfortunately, the “good” can’t be said for the whole book.

Okay, now let’s be clear on something – I’m not a fan of spoilers.  However, I can’t accurately explain what I don’t like about the book without it being a spoiler, and I think it’s obvious why.  The big thing is waiting to find out if Jack and Ma ever escape the room.

* * * So, here come the spoilers * * *

First, I know I have to separate what I’ll call common logic from the character of Ma.  There are things that might seem obvious to us, but that doesn’t mean they’re obvious to everyone.  For example, there’s a keypad in which Nick presses a code to enter and exit the room.  It might seem obvious to us that, while Nick is away for sometimes full days, Ma should be trying various combinations to see if she can unlock the door.  Common logic to me, but not once did Ma try this.  Baffling.  Also, common logic says that Ma could have stood near the door and, when Nick opened it, she could have stabbed him with a knife (she had silverware) and made a run for it.  There was a short tale in which she recounts trying something similar, but it seemed poorly planned and never tried again.  Why not?

Eventually, Ma and Jack do try an escape plan.  If this had been my book, I would definitely had the first, maybe second or third attempts fail.  Then, Nick would probably punish her harshly and make subsequent attempts even more difficult.  I was a bit disappointed not only how quickly they tried their escape but also at how easily their plan seemed to work.  It was so easy that it made me wonder why she hadn’t tried it sooner.  I’m sure the answer is that Jack as only 5, but it still worked too easily.

Only about half of the book is spent in the room.  The rest takes places with Ma and Jack in a police station, hospital, psychiatric hospital, home of Ma’s parents, and a few other places.  Let’s bring common logic back again because too many things were done incredibly stupidly, and it made me wonder when there’d be an adult character actually as smart as 5-year old Jack.

Ma tries to overdose on pills.  Okay, but why was a full bottle of pills left in the room of a patient in a psychiatric facility?  Only about a week after being freed from the room, Ma’s brother and wife take Jack to a shopping mall.  Really?  The boy was just thrown into a world that he had no idea existed, and you’re taking him to the mall that quickly?  And, to make it worse, they took him in order to shop for a birthday present for a party the brother’s daughter would soon be attending.  There was no reason for Jack to be brought to such a place.

Jack also spends time with his grandparents, also incredibly stupid.  Here’s a grandson she didn’t even know she had after her daughter, thought to be dead for seven years, has just been found.  It takes only a few minutes for the grandmother to huff and puff, exasperated by the boy’s constant questions.  Yo, Granny, how about a little sympathy for the kid?  Maybe just a little?

In terms of the writing itself, I was annoyed – maybe unfairly – by the vocabulary.  The boy doesn’t know a lot of words, understandable, especially a lot of everyday words.  Yet he knows the words cutlery, mental retardation, exclusive, and a bunch of other terms.  Doesn’t make sense.  Nor does it make sense for Ma’s lawyer to arrange a press conference at which is Jack, but the attorney tells the press that he trusts they will not take the boy’s picture or sell it to news sources.  Yeah, because that would never happen.

As previously stated – not recommended.

Bossy Pants


Tina Fey (2011)

It would be unfair for me to say I’m not a fan of Tina Fey.  I just don’t know much about her and haven’t seen her work except of the Sarah Palin impersonation on SNL and the movie Date Night.  I haven’t seen 30 Rock, though I’ve been told I should.  Based on knowing nearly nothing about her, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed her autobiography Bossy Pants.

This isn’t a tell-all or revelation about childhood trauma and struggles through dingy comedy clubs with unscrupulous characters while climbing professionally.  It’s just a witty recollection of scattered events through elementary school, high school, college, and her career.  It’s a pleasant tale of where she’s been, where she is, and how important it all is to her.  It’s done well enough to make me want to see more of her television work, and there is very little to criticize without appearing to search for something to criticize.

The worst thing I could say about Bossy Pants is the constant, predictable use of the “Rule of 3.”  That’s when a comedian gives you a list of things, and you know the third one will be the absurd but no longer unpredictable joke.  I realize why the Rule of 3 exists, to give you time to follow the leader, to focus on what you’re being told, and to be ready for the joke.  For example:

“I’m so tired of my kid complaining all day.  Why is kindergarten so hard? Why do all the other kids have iPhones?  How could anyone possibly be fooled by Rand Paul’s hair?”

The first one is to establish what my kid really complains about.  The second one is to make sure you’re paying attention and let you get comfortable.  The third one is the zinger.  We all know.  Everybody knows.  But it’s getting annoying.  Still, that’s the biggest complaint I could make about Bossy Pants.  Also, this isn’t an actual joke from the book, just one I made up as an example.

Unlike most other biographies or autobiographies and previously stated, this one doesn’t detail much of a struggle.  Maybe Fey didn’t want to appear like a whiner or some kind of champion.  Or, maybe she’s one of the few who got an early break and capitalized on it.  Nothing wrong with that.

I listened to this on CD with Fey reading it herself with excellent comic timing, so that was a bonus.  There were also a scattering of references and side moments that were likely not in the book and also a few embarrassing retellings made better when you can literally hear the softness and hesitancy in her voice, making the passage even funnier.

There’s not much else to say except 1. Very much recommended and 2. the cover is disturbing.


23 thoughts on “One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 8

  1. Always enjoy your reviews. Considering what you said about Dark Places and Room, don’t these authors have editors? Copy-readers/proofreaders? I’ve read a few things myself lately that make me wonder if publishing houses need to give their staffs refresher courses in those areas.

    • thanks for the kind words. i wonder if publishers think that most or many readers won’t even notice the errors so they just let it go. i hope that’s not the case, but…

    • you might be familiar with jerry spinelli. he wrote a great book called “crash.” it’s about bullying, but it was out long before anyone was talking about bullying. it’s told from the point of view of the bully, who really has no clue he’s a bully and is baffled by the behavior of the main kid he picks on.

      • i haven’t read that – partly because it isn’t available on cd at my library and partly because i shy away from the literature of that time period due to its wordiness. however, i shall seek it out because i like recommendations. thanks.

      • I know what you mean about the wordiness–I’ve tried a few period writers and couldn’t follow through. If I can work through P&P, ANYONE can.

      • When he started, the Indians were so bad, they we used to get free tickets right behind home plate. Manny Ramirez came up as this skinny kid who could hit the ball a ton, and the next year he was a bull. In my naivete I used to think it would be great to be able to workout all the time and bulk up like that. Of course now we know different. Jim Thome went through a similar growth spurt – at least to my eyes in the stands – but he was never accused of PEDs. But all said, Manny was the best right handed hitter I ever saw. He seemed to be able to hit no matter the count – the value of “see ball, hit ball”

      • Thome was underappreciated. from a distance it seemed like with both the phillies and indians he was a quiet guy going about his business, kind of like a hank greenberg type but obviously without the anti-semitism that greenberg faced. i liked the guy.

  2. Thank you for the great reviews! As another noted about ROOM and DARK PLACES, one wonders if editors are sacrificing story logistics for the sake of, well, the story. Your note on ROOM’s language in particular makes me wonder if the author dug the idea of a limited vocabulary, yet didn’t know what to do once the characters were outside the room, and just hoped a five-year-old would catch on super-power-quickly. As a mother of a five-year-old, I can safely say that does NOT happen, especially with a critical understanding of a word’s meaning.

    • If you’re a guy who grew up in the 70’s, which you’re not, you might have watched a lot of World War II movies. in those films, the german soldiers would start out speaking german for about 20 seconds, then they’d switch over to speaking english. i assume that was to establish, “hey, these guys are german and you probably don’t want subtitles, so we’re going english-mode now.” i wonder if the same happens in some books. the author started with a certain trend, established it, but then the needs of the story outweighed the needs of the trend, so changes were made. or – the author just forgot. either way, i appreciate the time and attention for your comment and i’m sorry it took so long to reply as it was stuck in a “pending” folder and i hadn’t noticed it.

      • Ha! Oh, that’s fine. Yes, I’ve seen such films where they switch languages for convenience, but I think that’s an acceptable cheat for films, unlike stories, where we can be inside the narrator. If I read your take on ROOM correctly, we are with the narrator alone, so that should have required follow-through with the language. Thanks for responding back to me, um, response!

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