Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I don't ordinarily look at reviews until after I've read a book or watched a movie. Obviously that's difficult with a popular book or movie because the reviews are ubiquitous and because I like to read reviews. On the other hand, when a friend recommends a book that sounds interesting, I don't check the reviews so I can come to it with relatively fresh eyes.

That's the case with The Book Thief by Australian author Marcus Zusak. It was published in September 2007, and it a YA best-seller. Zusak has said that he grew up hearing stories about Germany during WWII, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother's small, German town. "We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the 'Heil Hitlers' and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn't follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there's another side to Germany," said Zusak in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Book Thief dramatizes that other side by telling the story of a young girl living in a small German town during the years 1939-44. It might have been a mirror image of Diary of a Young Girl—the Aryan girl who also suffers under Nazism—except that Zusak does an interesting thing: He has Death tell the story. Because Death is everywhere, Death sees things and knows things no one of the characters can know. The result, I found, is an interesting, and convincing, picture of small town German life from the perspective of the children at that time.

The book is popular. When I checked a minute ago, it had 1,174 five-star reviews on And with a book that's so many people are willing to take the time to rate and review, I am always curious about those who didn't care for it, the 37 people who gave it one-star reviews. What is their problem? Many of them found it slow-paced and boring. Some didn't like the writing, i.e., "...the premise of this seemed so original and fun, but I was sorely disappointed. I couldn't get past the first 30 pages. The voice of the narrator was so irritating I wanted to scream..." "... I found [the language]  to be empty, fruity, and ultra-pretentious..." "...this book was so confusing, and hard to understand..."

Few of the critics feel the problem with the book is in themselves. "The book is boring" not "I thought (or felt or found) the book to be boring." Many of them are mystified that other people enjoyed the book and are angry that they got sucked into trying it or, worse, buying it. Almost no one who hated the book goes into any detail why. On the other hand, these are Amazon reviews and one can hardly expect the reviewers to spent more than a moment warning off potential readers. Nonetheless, it does not help the author or the potential reader to write with no examples or detail why a book succeeds for you or fails for you.

By the way, I read The Book Thief through. It convinced me that this is what it might have been like to be a pre-teen at that time in that place. Which, for me, is a lot.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Japanese ramen museums

The Sunday New York Times travel section recently ran a "36 Hours in Osaka, Japan" feature.  The writer recommended as among the city's highlights the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. It's "an entertaining pilgrimage site for noodle lovers that is named after the inventor of instant ramen — yes, that’s a statue of him outside. Mix and match flavors and ingredients to create a personalized cup of instant ramen at the My Cup Noodle Factory, or purchase one of the limited-edition varieties from a vending machine in the tasting room."

I've never been to the Osaka museum, but I've visited the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum twice. ("Rauman" is the way the museum spells it.) It's only about half an hour from downtown Tokyo by train, and an easy walk from the Shin-Yokohama station. It features a large hall that recreates the Tokyo of 1958, the year instant ramen noodles were invented. Surrounding this two-story hall are branches of famous noodle restaurants from around Japan, each featuring a local specialty.

The museum's ground floor has a detailed explanation of noodle manufacturing (in Japanese), the history of ramen, and a gift shop. While this is an exhibition tailored for Japanese visitors, you don't have to be able to speak Japanese to enjoy the ambiance, the feeling of 1958 Tokyo, or to order a very nice, and not very expensive, meal. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison

I've been aware of Jim Harrison for a long time, exclusively through positive book reviews. The man is prolific, over 31 books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Born and raised in Michigan, Harrison currently divides his time between Montana and Arizona. He has a B.A. and an M.A. (in comparative literature) from Michigan State University. He is a writer worth knowing.

Returning to Earth was published in 2010 and I found it interesting on several levels. Four people tell their own stories, Donald, K (for Kenneth), David, and Cynthia in four virtually equal segments. Donald, half-Chippewa/half-Finn, is married to Cynthia; they have two children, and Donald is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

K is (I believe) the son of David and his ex-wife Polly. (I believe, because the book is stuffed with characters and, while I had no trouble keeping them straight, I did have trouble keeping their relationships straight).

David and Cynthia are siblings, children of a wealthy landowner/industrialist on Michigan's Upper Peninsula where most of the action takes place with side trips to Chicago, New York, Montana, and Mexico.

The story is simple: Donald dies and his survivors have to live on. But of course that's like saying life is simple: you're born, you live, you die. A lot goes on in between, and Harrison, while helping to know the four narrators intimately, touches on Native Indian beliefs, the ecological rape of the Upper Peninsula and the effect on the local tribes, relations between siblings and parents, the pressures of sex, life in the woods, how one comes to accept the inevitability of death (or not), and more.

I found the book exceptionally rich and interesting. Here, almost at random, is K musing on his parents: "At the time I looked at them as childish in their refusal to accept that life was chaotic and inconclusive. Life is slow and I watched movies to know immediately what happened next. I even made notes on what the characters might be doing during scenes in their lives that weren't in the movies. Parents often only see what they wish to see. Polly never knew that my sister Rachel and a girlfriend had sold nude Polaroids of themselves for money to buy marijuana. Clare [his step cousin] sent me some money and I managed to buy the photos back from a half dozen boys. With two of them it took money and physical threats. My sister thought of herself as a free spirit and couldn't care less. She asked me, 'Why are boys always embarrassed when you give them what they want?' A solid question, I think."

Another solid question: How have I missed reading Jim Harrison for so long?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Meeting with a book group

Last night, I was a friend's Meet-the-Author guest at her book group's monthly meeting. The group has been discussing books for at least twenty years, and they recently decided to read the books of local authors and invite the authors to the discussion. I was the third this year (which may reflect the literary activity in my little town).

The nine women liked Getting Oriented, but had trouble with all the characters, keeping them straight at the beginning of the book. (The tour guide, ten guests on his tour, his boss back in Chicago, and more.) They didn’t have any suggestions on how to fix that, nor was it a problem once they’d read into the book; it’s just that there are a lot of names to keep straight. But they recognized that too few people on a tour would also be a problem with veracity. My friend had printed out my book group guide and whenever the conversation flagged, she asked one of the leading questions.
They wanted to know how I constructed the book. I said that having the tour gave me a structure and a movement through time. I also said that I’d originally tried to keep every chapter rigidly to a single day, but it was clear that was too strict and now events from one day slop over into the next chapter where it makes sense. I did not know how the book was going to end when I started, and I wrote a biography for the main characters so I knew something about them.
They said my love of Japan came through clearly, and felt they’d learned a lot about the country in the book. At the same time there was enough of a story to pull them through; it is not simply a travel guide. They wanted to know why I had the sex scene in the book. I said I wanted to show the main character’s gradual recovery from his depression, and being sexually attracted to a woman (and doing something about it) was one way to show his being on his way to recovery.
They wanted to hear me speak Japanese, which I did. (On the other hand, as I pointed out, I could have said almost anything and how would they know?) Two school teachers had exposed their students to Japanese and calligraphy, so they were interested in the language.
Two women said they'd like to write and I talked about how to start (get up early, sit at the desk, and do it). One woman asked about writer’s block. I said what I believe: It's a symptom, not a disease, and once you recognize the disease, the block tends to go away. Usually, I think, it’s a symptom of fear—fear of failure, fear of offending someone, fear of revealing too much. My suggestion and cure for writer's block, which I have suffered: Realize every first draft is crap, and just write without thinking. You can always go back.
For show and tell, I brought my hanko and an ema, like the votive prayer tablet I'm holding in the picture above, and some pictures from Japan showing real places the fictional tour visits. I inscribed and stamped books the ladies had bought and told stories about tour-leading that aren't in the book. I had a wonderful time.