The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

the book thief_onlyoublogI’m coming to The Book Thief a tad late as this was a sensation when it came out in 2006. After hearing more than one person say that The Book Thief was one of the most amazing – if not the most amazing – books they had ever read, I felt I had to put it on my to-read list. Then this summer I read somewhere that the film version was coming out in the fall, so I immediately ratcheted it up my list.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, and it’s the story of a girl named Liesel Meminger who is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. She is 9 years old at the start of the book and the story spans the next 5 years of her life.

Liesel’s own father disappeared under mysterious circumstances (it is later speculated that he was taken away due to his Communist activities), her younger brother dies suddenly on their way to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and Liesel never hears from her mother again. Her days getting adjusted to her new parents are difficult and her nights are consistently filled with nightmares. Rosa Hubermann is like the coarsest sandpaper possible but Liesel finds a loving and kind new father figure in Hans.

The book thief is Liesel, who is illiterate in the beginning of the story and is bullied because of it. But she becomes pulled in by the possibility of words when she picks up a book dropped by the man who was digging the grave of her brother. She takes it home as the one thing she can remember her brother by and Hans, though limited in his own education, begins reading it to her and tries to teach her to read.

Over the next five years Liesel continues to grow in her love for words and books as well as finds her voice. It is, after all, through her ability to write – she ends up writing her autobiography in a blank journal – that we come to know her story.

The main action in the book revolves around the Hubermanns’ decision to hide a Jewish man in their basement. The story comes to an emotionally powerful  conclusion.

The book is unique in terms of structure and writing. First of all, it’s narrated by Death, a surprisingly human and, on many occasions, humorous voice that helps create the intimate feeling of the book.

It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Fuhrer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die. (page 491)

Once in awhile, Death would speak like this:

The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. (page 200)

And he would insert bold alerts in the middle of a page like this:

* * * THE SITUATION OF HANS AND * * *

ROSA HUBERMANN

Very sticky indeed.

In fact, frightfully sticky.

(page 199)

And Death also does a lot of foreshadowing – that is, he (why do I assume it is a he?) will tell you the fate of a particular character or situation and then either in the next chapter or later on in the book, when the timing is right, tell the actual story.

I didn’t mind most of the literary devices used, though I found the bold alerts a bit distracting. My other mild complaint is that I felt the book started to drag a bit 2/3 of the way through…at that point I really began wondering if I was missing something, why The New York Times laud this a “LIFE CHANGING” book on the front cover. This is a 550-page book and while it is very readable, I was feeling at that point that it was a hundred pages too long. Then I got to the final part and things really picked up. Amazing, those final 55 pages made up for whatever disappointment I was feeling earlier.

While I wouldn’t say that this book changed my life (maybe because I picked it up after so many years of hype? and maybe because I’m comparing it to other works on the Holocaust like Anne Frank’s story), it was a satisfying read and a wonderfully told story I won’t soon forget.

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How to grieve a public tragedy

I wasn’t happy with my post on Tuesday, the one in which I’d written about Boston.*

All of it was true – the way Fred asked me how I’d felt, the way he gave me permission to feel bad, the deep, deep indebtedness and pain that I feel toward the city that gave me life. But I wrote it all from a place of self-consciousness. I held back. I put up a front. I thought, the only way people will come to read this piece is if I tell them it’s not a depressing piece. I fenced in my emotions and plagiarized the optimism and fortitude that I’d read about and already seen in so many people.

The thing is, I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to grieve for a public tragedy and for one in which I don’t have any direct connection to the actual victims or survivors. But it hurts, and it hurts me in a way that is different from the Oklahoma bombing and even the 911 attacks. It hurts so badly because it happened to a place that I see as my second mother.

And I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Of course, I called my parents and talked to my brother briefly. Max got it all in stereo. Fred got the abbreviated PG version. Close girlfriends and I exchanged very short messages. But really, what can you say? A good friend of mine offered to talk. But she’s busy, and I couldn’t imagine dialing her up while she is trying to juggle school pick-up and grocery shopping just to make her listen to dead silence occasionally punctuated by a sob in the background. No, at this time I probably needed to be alone…to be alone and yet not all by myself. So I went to Facebook. It is there that I learned of the explosions in the first place as well as found an instant gathering of friends, including childhood friends in Boston.

Grieving on Facebook made me feel better until it did not. And I’d go in this cycle over and over and be too stupid to just sign off. It’s an easy place to grieve. You can identify those who feel the same as you do and, through mutual sadness and anger and bewilderment, you find company. But not everyone meets you there; in fact, the majority doesn’t, or some do, but sporadically. You try to control yourself and only update your emotional state twice a day, and you think you are helping the public by sharing articles that offer newsworthy updates or some eloquent meditation on what has happened, swearing, to God, that this “must-read” will be the last (for the day, anyway). You do this because for you it’s cathartic, and because, you hope, it might bait some friends to come over and make you feel less alone. But slowly, you fear, your Facebook friends are tuning you out. Or perhaps they’re so consumed by their own grief that they cannot deal with Facebook. Or perhaps they don’t know what to say. Regardless, you are left back where you started: What do you do with your feelings?

It all happens in such vastness. It isn’t our grandmother dying, where there’s a place we can all go to and feel connected. When large, distant tragedies hit we shed tears with our hands clasped over our mouths across state lines, across oceans and we want to hold someone’s hand and yet so many times we are doing this in front of a screen. During Sandy Hook and Boston I wanted to reach out and hold more than just my husband and my son. I wanted more but I didn’t know where I could find these other hands. Maybe the reason I’ve turned to Facebook is because when so many invisible people are hurt, I need to go to the biggest place I can find.

And with vastness comes diversity. I have learned, through Sandy Hook and now through Boston, that we all deal with and process our feelings so differently, and yet how we do it impacts how others around us can cope. There’s the person who can’t stop talking about it and the person who wants to shut it all out. Put them together in a common space, like Facebook or a house, and no one’s needs get met.

When no one talks then it can be easy, at least for me, to assume that everyone else is moving on. Everyone is coping, and everyone is doing what she needs to do to not let a couple of bombs get in the way of Being There for her children. Many girlfriends say to me that they just turn off the news; it is too upsetting and they just turn it off. I allow myself to believe that they can do this because they are made of better maternal fiber than I – that in times of crisis and down-to-your-knees emotion they still have the mental clarity and wherewithal to carry out their priorities.

On the day after the bombing I blogged about Boston and then I failed to make dinner. Max had to take Fred to his after school activity, and I told him that I couldn’t cook. I just couldn’t. Because cooking would mean going to the supermarket and going to the supermarket would mean getting showered and getting dressed. I’ll change to go out for dinner, but before that I couldn’t.

And things continued like this. My body started to feel heavy, like I was on the verge of catching the flu. My head, neck and shoulders ached. Fred asked to do something with me and I said no. At night I scolded him, longer and more harshly than was necessary, because he was slow to get into bed. Rather than talking back, he just clamped his hands over his ears. Yet still, before he drifted off to sleep, he reached for my hand as he always does, and whispered with his lips brushing my cheek as he never fails to do, “I love you too, too much.” He is a third-grader, just like the little boy who died. I got to hear my son tell me that he loves me; Martin’s parents never will.

Yes, I hated myself at that point.

After Fred drifted peacefully to sleep – a privilege I realize I can no longer take for granted – I opened my computer, and I read my friend Alexandra’s blog post When Your Heart Tells You to Stop. She talked about her day after the bombing. It was uncannily similar to mine. She could barely cook. She’d walked out of the auto shop forgetting to pay for the work done on her car. She was unsettled and unfocused and hurting.

It wasn’t just me.

It isn’t just me.

It is because of Alexandra’s post that I can feel, let alone write all of this. Before it I was bombarded in every direction by Fred Rogers’ quote, the one about how in bad and scary times we should always look to the ones who help. There were messages galore about looking on the bright side and being resilient and bouncing back and having hope, and that became the message I believed I needed to feel and to own, right away. We Americans are very strong and very forward thinking and very optimistic. I take so much pride in that, but on the first day and even on the second, I just wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t race my emotions through. Call me slow but for the life of me I couldn’t muster up the strength to move on, no matter how many people, it seemed, were already on that other side. How those people got there so fast, I don’t know. Maybe they are wired differently. Maybe they found all the right support. Maybe they turned off all the news. For me on those first few days, I just needed to hurt, to say, This Sucks, and to have people tell me, I know.

*I’ve since edited my post Boston from Tuesday, because I owe it at least that. I’m happy with it now.

Boston

Fred woke up yesterday complaining of a headache and tried gently to twist my arm into letting him stay home from school. And yet, he was sitting up, smiling and, later, even laughing during sillier moments in our conversation. I said to him, “You know, when I broke my leg, all the doctors would ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Getting you out of me was a 10, so I would tell them 7.”

He liked the scale, admitted he was a 2, and trotted off to school.

***

At around 3:00, I flew down the stairs to look for Max to tell him there had been an explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line. My high school friend had posted on Facebook that she was praying her sister, who had run in the marathon, would be okay. I was not getting any of this – why was everyone worried if the runners were okay? – so I googled the Marathon, and then turned on the t.v.

I watched in horror and indescribable sadness as the city that raised me went up in smoke. The historic library on the left of the scene that is replayed again and again on t.v. – that is where I fell in love with books for the first time. I went to the prom, met up with friends, had my first date, attended family and friends’ weddings, and transferred trains to get home from school daily all within a 2-block radius. A year ago to the month, Max, Fred and I went on an Easter egg hunt at the church down a little ways.

Watching my expressionless sadness and tears, Fred asked, “Mommy, how do you feel, on a scale of 1 to 10?”

I was not really up for talking, but I grabbed the opportunity to be consoled.

“Umm…I guess I would say an 8…I want to say 9 or 10 but that’s for the people who were actually there, who saw it happening, or for those who got hurt or had a friend or family member get hurt, or…”

“Die,” said Fred.

“Yes, the 10 is for those people who lost someone.”

“So you’re saying 8 because you grew up there?”

“Yes.”

“I think you can take a 9.”

***

I am grieving because, indeed, so much of who I am is tied up in this beautiful city and birthplace of America. Over San Francisco where the rest of our family was, my parents chose Boston – after fleeing China and Peru – to start all over again and to feel real hope for the first time.

Though we immigrated during a time of heated racial tension (I started school right at the explosion of the notorious court ordered desegregation in the 1970s), not once did Boston ever turn its back on us, not when my parents were struggling to learn English, not even when they had no legal right to even be here. Boston gave my parents work and community resources and a chance to rise out of their initial jobs as restaurant dishwasher and garment factory worker. By the time I was in junior high my father opened a new restaurant with a group of partners, and was now fluent enough in English to work the bar and to chat up all the customers. He became a loyal fan of both Boston sports and the Kennedys and is proud of the following four highlights in his life:  1) waiting on former Celtics great Dave Cowens in his restaurant; 2) shaking hands with former Patriots coach Bill Parcells in the Cleveland Circle theater restroom (my father is not shy); 3) shaking hands with Congressman Joseph Kennedy along the Charles River; and 4) being granted US citizenship after 20 years of waiting. His approval was held up in the red tape of the INS for years, until we wrote to Congressman Kennedy, who pushed his application through. Well into their 70s now and armed with a shed full of shovels and snowblowers, they refuse to accept my invitation to join us in a warmer, slower, gentler part of the country. But then again, my parents cannot move even if they wanted to; my mother is still working for the city, and she refuses to retire.

And the Boston Public Schools’ mission to elevate its working class children through opportunities and dedicated teachers allowed my brother and I to eventually attend colleges and universities that my parents never even dared fantasize about. My own greatest memories of childhood include piano lessons, advanced classes, trips to see the Nutcracker and the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, a 4 year scholarship to study studio art at the Museum of Fine Arts, a chance to design floats and costumes and march in the city’s Walt Disney Parade, an invitation to become a cast member of a PBS talk show with Dr. Tom Cottle…all of this came not from my parents but from the schools. The Boston Public Schools gave us what our parents wanted to but didn’t have the means to.

Boston is my adoptive parent, my angel, and today I miss it with an ache I can’t describe.

Yesterday so many either lost or are now clinging to the hope that my family has had in abundance. I grieve for those children, those runners, those spectators, and those families whose dreams were unexpectedly cut short in this magical city. That the city that gave us so much reason to move forward could be juxtaposed with scenes of danger and fear is mind-boggling.

But Boston is nothing if not fearless. And resilient. And loyal. We know her winters. We know her schools. We know her sports teams and her fans. We know her history in the formation of this country. Most of all, we know her people. They are people like my parents, who have soared on hope during their own periods of danger and fear and who in turn will stand by Boston’s side to the very end.

On a scale of 1 to 10, today I feel a 10: for sadness, for anger, for hope, for gratitude, and for pride.

boston                                      photo credit: Barewalls.com

Heartbreak

This post was not planned, since just 12 hours ago or even 6 hours ago no one could have conceived of something so unspeakable happening. But I need to talk to someone, even if I don’t have the words, so I’m just going to write off the cuff here.

I’ve already decided that I may not turn on the t.v. today, or click open any links, or turn on NPR. I’m not sure. As much as I want to see the parents and the children – to show them some symbolic solidarity – I’m not sure if my heart can handle getting so close. And for that I feel selfish.

And is it also selfish that after thinking about the children and their parents my mind raced to my own child? Because deep down, I have imagined the worst and have wondered how I would react if I ever got such a call. Because I know these things happen, especially in the United States. And because it has happened to other parents, it can happen to us too. And because my son’s school actually practices lockdown procedures. Oh yes. From the ripe old age of 5, my little boy had learned the word “lockdown.” By kindergarten he was more familiar with what to do when a gunman shows up on school grounds than with how to tie his own shoelaces or prepare his own snack.

“Me and Danny and Lily and Jana all ducked under the teacher’s table with our heads down and our hands over our heads. The other kids went under the other tables.”

How innocent and cheerful he was when he said that, as if he were telling me about a new game at recess, while I had to fight back tears at the very image of it.

And once or twice Fred and his schoolmates did in fact have a real lockdown. The most serious one was in first grade, when a student arrived at the high school down the street with a gun and took a shot inside the school bus. But the teachers were calm. As far as the children knew, they just had extended language arts that morning. No panic…only among the staff and parents who’d received a call from the principal about the lockdown.

It’s ironic, that I grew up in a much rougher and more destitute neighborhood 30 years ago and yet I did not become familiar with the words “gunman” and “lockdown” and “barricade” until I became a parent in an affluent neighborhood.

I am so angry at the gun laws in this country. I lived for almost a decade in a country where guns are illegal, and where the annual number of deaths by firearms ranged from 2 to 22 between 2006 and 2008 (compared to 12,000+ in the U.S. in 2008). I love America but for this.

Today so much is running through me – the urgent need to hold my child, anger at the senselessness, and a visceral ache for my fellow parents…because in parenthood we’re united by a common understanding of those unique emotions that can only be felt but not described. In this way I can only imagine and at the same time imagine too well what those parents are going through…and that is why it hurts so much.

Control

I’m back, after an eventful and often difficult summer. In contrast to the school year, our summers are typically a bit messy and without structure, a time when bedtime routines fly out the window along with sugar restrictions and timely haircuts.

What all of this means for me, of course, is a feeling of being out of control…out of control in an area – parenting – that is, by definition, about letting go of the need to control. It means I tend to be out of sorts during summers and I’m ill prepared to handle any extra chaos on top of the unstructured days I already have.

But things happened this summer. The movie theater and temple shootings. The need for both my parents to get biopsies done. The sudden death of a staff member. A bike accident that left me with a broken leg.

I’ve always been a planner, disliking the idea of winging life or being caught by any of its unpleasant surprises. I organized the 5-year time line of our move from Japan to the US. I coordinate complex daily schedules of appointments, deadlines, pick ups and drop offs. “This is not the military!” my mother once said to me when I gave her strict bedtime instructions for our 5 month old.

In late June Justin died. Just like that, at 34 years old. We’d gotten together less than 2 weeks earlier and were drinking and laughing and so looking forward to the upcoming work season together. For the rest of the summer I was haunted by his voice and laughs, having a hard time grasping the fact that they would, from now on, exist only inside my head.

Justin’s unexpected death would trigger a transformation (of what kind I still can’t articulate) that would affect the way I deal with my most recent crisis, which is my own accident. Last week I broke my tibia bone – the main bone in our legs – and I will be in a cast until October and won’t be able to walk normally until next year.

I’ve been uncharacteristically positive, thanks to Justin. Despite the fact that at the moment of my accident Max was out of town, I’d forgotten my cell phone, and neither Max nor I were going to be able to pick Fred up from camp until hours past closing, when I hit the ground the clearest thought I had (besides the awareness that my ankle was definitely broken) was the fact that I was completely alert. My head never touched concrete. There were no cars involved. I could see, I could think, I could talk. Everything was gravy no matter how broken. I didn’t cry.

Since the accident I’ve learned effective and ridiculous ways to crawl up and down stairs. I’ve learned (from labor, of course!) to breathe through the agonizing daily pain of the swelling. I patiently allow myself to set aside a full hour each day to get into and out of the shower, savoring the hot water as my reward. I’ve warmed to the sweetness that my injury has brought out in my 8 year old (as well as in my 40-something year old!).  Most importantly, I have accepted the painful truth that I need to stay on the sidelines as a mother for the next six weeks, and I have handed over the reins to my husband. I have so far (mostly) succeeded in closing the door on that part of my brain that is temped to think my life right now sucks.

So I’m doing well, considering. Except once in a while, a feeling similar to the one I had in the weeks following Justin’s death creeps in. It is not frustration or anger or self-pity. It’s the feeling of vulnerability. Yesterday, while putting together a snack and lunch list for the school year – my attempt to plan my way back to “normal” – I suddenly became aware of feeling incredibly small, and I understood and feared that there will always be unseen things I will never have any control over.

Two days after I wrote this post I found out I have to have surgery. This time I cried…(but I’m okay). 

Recovering

 the lovely view from our cabin over spring break

I’m back, after a longish but unintended hiatus.

I’ve missed writing and connecting with all of you. Unfortunately, I just had nothing to write about. Or I thought I had nothing worthy to write about, nothing that would make your trek over here worthwhile.

My last two posts were about the Japan earthquake. I wrote them because I felt I needed to. But I wasn’t happy with the posts because I couldn’t translate my emotions to words. How is it that I could write about something so clearly devastating to me (I was nauseated for several days) without feeling? I had put up a wall, a dam, between my writing and my feelings. It was at that point that I decided to stay quiet behind my writer’s block.

But many of you commented on my last post and I even heard from some new visitors. Your words and support meant so much to me, enough to keep me from quitting my blog altogether.

Looking back, I realized that in my absence I was trying to find ways to cope. Reading, hearing and thinking about the earthquake were literally making me sick. Somehow my body responded by one day choosing to live more externally. In other words, I began spending less and less time inside my head. I turned off the t.v. I tried staying away from my computer as much as possible. I began avoiding words. I stopped writing and reading.

Instead, I began doing, something that is sort of out of character for me.

For Fred’s spring break we made a 3-day getaway to a hot springs town. We rented a beautiful cabin near the Appalachian Mountains and enjoyed our own private tub of hot mineral water. Cabin fever and a crazy marital spat aside, I had a wonderful time and returned home with softer muscles and radiant skin (you have to try a hot springs dip!).

I’ve also been spending alot of time outdoors, exercising. 3 miles of walking a day. Push ups, lunges, etc. The intoxication of the sun and the endorphins released from moving my body feed my desire to do more.

I’ve scheduled three fun dates with a good girlfriend of mine (she doesn’t have children and is still enjoying the carefree life) that I don’t see nearly enough of. WHEN was the last time I really went out with a girlfriend, doing girlfriend stuff??

Max, Fred and I have also channeled our anxious energies into doing something creative and productive for Japan. We’ve been folding origami and making origami cards as both symbolic and practical gestures (for fundraising). The idea of doing something so intricate used to give me headaches, but now that I’ve tried it, I realize how soothing and meditative origami can be.

And I’ve felt so good! I am at peace. I am happy. My body has softened. Yes, this small island on the other side of the world – my second home country – is reeling. But I needed to move on. In searching for ways to cope I’ve stumbled upon and incorporated ways to add more peace and joy into my life.

And a week or so ago I really began to feel that I miss…words. Stories and updates from friends, my own reaching out to others.

I admire the many bloggers who can continue to write consistently no matter what enters their daily lives. I am hoping that I can better combine the internal and the external, and am looking forward to filling this space more regularly from now on.

How do you cope when your inner world feels overwhelming? Do you also go through periods of hibernation? If you’re a blogger, how do you maintain your motivation to write and stay public?

Super heroes

Max and I have spent the last few days emailing and Skyping with friends in Japan. I want to share, briefly, two of the stories that have chilled and humbled me the most (though I will likely not do them justice in my recounting), because these are the stories of fellow parents, and friends with whom we have bonded over so many likenesses and shared experiences.

K. was in a meeting at work when the quake struck. She dove under the conference table watching wall hangings and bookshelves topple over around her. Crying and clutching the hand of a fellow co-worker, in her mind she really believed that this would be it, and the only thing she could think about was the fact that she was not with her 6 year-old daughter and husband. But she did make it out of the quake alive, and the next thing she did, as soon as she was allowed to go out, was to get to her daughter at school. “I NEEDED to have her in my arms,” she wrote. Wanting to fly to her daughter, she was forced instead to drive along the split open roads at snail pace.

Our other friend S. was working in Tokyo when the quake hit, and even on Japan’s rapid transit system he was a good 2 or so hours away from home. They had stopped all commuter trains that day and night though, so he walked home to get his 2 year-old daughter from her daycare. “I finally got there at 2 in the morning,” he wrote. He had walked 11 hours. (His wife was stranded in Tokyo.) 

Before this incident, they were my peers, friends with whom we have shared office space, beers, DVDs, the same sense of humor, the same rantings about marriage and parenthood. Sharing our stories and experiences was like playing handball; we threw things back and forth and we understood one another because we have each been there in the other’s shoes.

Until now. But I don’t mean that in any negative way. I have simply always imagined heroic acts of courage to be more distant, heroes to be people I read about, not email or have coffee with.

We were the same. Could we be the same, still?

If Max, Fred and I had not left Japan in 2008, we would have been in that earthquake. Despite myself, I have played out the various possible scenarios  in my head. 2:46 p.m. Fred would be about to finish up at school, and I would be, I am guessing, getting ready to pick him up. Max would be either working from home or meeting with a client in Tokyo (50 minutes away by train). Or it could be the other way around; I could be the one in Tokyo. Either way, there is a chance we would all be separated. Could I muster the physical, mental and emotional strength to suppress my own fears in order to protect my child when disaster strikes? Could I walk 11 hours, without food, without drink, for my child?

I want to believe that I can. That we are not all that different, that the heroism I have seen in my friends and in so many people in Japan and around the world is mettle that we have in all of us. Until I am tested, though, I stand in awe of all those who have survived tragedy and who are coping with struggles that we can only try to imagine.

Has tragedy ever hit close to home for you or have you overcome tragedy yourself? Do you ever think “what if”?