The Book Thief

I’m very pleased to end the year with The Book Thief. I read it mixing both my reading of the novel and then listening to parts of the audiobook on some of my trips during the holidays. The audiobook is fabulous. And the writing is fantastic quality.

I caught myself several times reading and thinking that every word felt like Zusak slaved over it. It seems that every word is in the perfect place. But while the writing is fantastic, I can’t say that the story is completely enthralling. I really think I’m more interested in the way the story is told rather than the actual story.

Don’t get me wrong, the story is moving, and it’s fascinating to be immersed in German culture during this period. What’s mostly fascinating is how normal it feels.

But let’s not get carried away! First striking fact of the novel is the narrator: Death — and what an incredible narrator he(?) is. We get a lot of insight into how death is and how death works. Like he mentions several times, this was a very active time in history. What becomes most obvious is Death’s fascination with humans — and it’s in the annuals of death that we find the beauty of life.

My favorite passage comes near the end, but really frames the story at work: “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 evny. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die” (491).

Liesel’s story is both linear and circular. It is linear in that it is finite, i.e. it ends. But it is also circular because Death has the power to retell the story … to make Liesel live again. But the story is also circular because death starts telling the story at its ending, really takes us to the beginning, and brings us back to the end. That’s the true magic of Zusak’s novel.

One of the beautiful aspects of the novel is Liesel’s fixation with words and books. I love that her character development in turns comes from her development as a reader and subsequently as a writer. But her relationship to books is two-fold. First, she reads seemingly normal books. I suppose it makes sense that she wasn’t reading any of the known “classic” literature that most of us are familiar. There’s nothing standout — but these books still matter and make an impression on her. They are her victories.

Secondly, I like the significance that each book has to her life. That’s part of what /The Last Passage/ is for me — to help me remember the significance of the books I’ve read to my own life — where I was in my own journey while I have encountered other stories along the way. For instance, my heart swelled and ached as Liesel worked and struggled to get through The Gravedigger’s Handbook because it was tied to her mother and brother. It was the last link to her life before living with the Hubermanns.

But again, I return to my first point. I don’t know that the story (the linear part) mattered so much to me. I enjoyed Hans and Rosa’s parenting, the friendship of Rudy, and the company of Max. I think Liesel made an interesting choice for the main character. She was fragile enough, but also brave enough to steal books and to care for a Jew.

Overall, I think The Book Thief was a beautiful and moving story. I would encourage everyone to check out the audiobook too. Allan Corduner embodies the voice of Death so completely. I usually don’t think about the voice of the narrator when I’m reading silently, but I found myself reading in Corduner’s voice when switching back to the novel after listening to a stint of the audiobook.

Fantastic and well worth your time.

Favorite Passages in The Book Thief

Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after the flood. They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls. Was it fate? Misfortune? Is taht what glued them down like that? Of course not. Let’s not be stupid. It probably had something to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds. (12)

If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something. (16)

Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain. (80)

It’s much easier, she realized, to be on the verge of something than to actually be it. (87)

To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: “Get it done, get it done.” So you work harder. You get the job done. The boos, however, does not thank you. He asks for more. (309)

God. I always say that name when I think of it. God. Twice, I speak it. I say His name in a futile attempt to understand. “But it’s not your job to understand.” That’s me who answers. God never says anything. You think you’re the only one he never answers? (350)

It kills me sometimes, how people die. (464)

I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right. (528)

I can promise you that the world is a factory. The sun stirs it, the humans rule it. And I remain. I carry them away. (543)

A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR: I am haunted by humans. (550)

The Enchanted

I love an absolutely gorgeous novel like Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted. I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the story so masterfully constructed; however, I hate asking myself to try to write about it. There is so much I want to say but so much I can miss saying. I loved every word from page one until the final. The novel is so adept at capturing feeling. It was arresting in parts and beyond moving in others.

The storyline revolves around an inmate on death row, who has decided that he wants to die rather than trying to get off. It’s this wish that spawns a strong investigation into his background to essentially save him from his desire (an irony noted throughout). The best part is the narrator is another death row inmate awaiting his own time, and he incredibly walks us through the time leading up to the execution, following several subplots that tie together so perfectly. The investigation is conducted solely by a woman who is in search of much more than clues to save this man’s life.

I find it strange that I chose this after finishing Annihilation. Again, veiled writing is at the heart of this novel. Perhaps that isn’t as uncommon as I like to believe, maybe I just haven’t noticed the trend. Anyway, it serves this story so well. It creates a dreamlike and ethereal state — a transportation mechanism that lifts us out of this pit of darkness (a prison).

Names (or the lack of their usage) have a particular role in setting this veiled atmosphere. When I first started thinking about this novel as a whole, I came up with the idea that only the fractured are nameless. Those that are whole are called by name. York (the inmate who wants to die) is named because he seems to be in a place of acceptance, becoming one with his fate. Also because his character has history and his name seems to be a key to unlocking that history. Those without names are sheltered. Their names and ultimately histories are shaded.

Even the location is nameless. As the novel opened, I had a hard time determining the location and time. But that slowly came into focus even though it still remained quite vague. And so I questioned: is there a point to all of the veiling? Is it for us to see our selves in these figures? If they remain shadow archetypes, can we easily project ourselves onto them? Or does the removal of a name reduce the opacity of these characters for us to see into them?

Those were the questions that I pondered and then it dawned on me, of course, the veiled storytelling is the narrator’s doing. The narrator: a death row inmate, the one who keeps telling us that this prison is an enchanted place. Another unreliable narrator. He hasn’t left his cell in years, so how would he know about what information the Lady is digging up? How would he know what was going on in the world above with the White Haired Boy? How oculd he have access to any of this knowledge? “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do” (1), he tells us.

In fact, the narrator remains under his blanket most of the time, so it’s hard to imagine he knows anything about what is going on. So I’m going to ruin part of the discovery for you and contend that The Enchanted is our narrator’s own personal fairy tale to get him through the last moments of his life.

After all, he says he sees “the most enchanted things you can imagine” (1, emphasis mine). We are in the trenches of his imagination, his mind. “I want to tell you while I still have time,” (1). Tell us yet he is adamant throughout that he cannot speak, and there is “no diary on the stone floor” (225) for him to tell us through.

And back to the argument of names and those who incomplete, the narrator is finally named in the end (a moment I won’t spoil here), revealing a moment of transcendence and completion.

The novel deals with perhaps one of my favorite themes: the human desire/need to be seen or known — in effect, to matter. It blends the fantastic with reality reminscent to the film, Pan’s Labyrinth. The two collide so smoothly that it becomes evident that reality and fantasy belong together.

This is a must read. Denfeld has written a memorable first novel that deserves time and attention, and maybe even a reread (for me at least!).

Favorite Passages in The Enchanted

Inside, the lies you tell become the person you become. On the outside, sun and reality shrink people back to their actual size. In here, people grow into their shadows. (3)

I read my favorite books over and over again and each time found new things inside them, as if the writers had put in new words in my absence. (14)
— Love this quote … couldn’t agree more

I would think for hors how strange it was that some parts of words are silent, just like some parts of our lives. Did the people who wrote the dictionaries decide to mirror language to our lives, or did it just happen that way? (19)

I think that in the outside world, names come with meanings. A Harriet might bring forth a Samuel, and he is followed by a Dan, maybe, or a Susan. The names are connected like cords of life, each breathing into another and those names go searching to breathe into others, so the whole idea of a family tree is not a dead spine but a living breathing thing, with roots under clean soil, and bright sparkling branches hungry for the sky. When someone dies in the outside world, the other names go on breathing, seeking, creating, so that the tree seeds into the fertile forest floor, and it all continues. (38)
— Beautiful prose and explorative of the power of names

if there are things inside us too tiny to see, might there be things outside us too big to believe? (49)

Well — I suppose some things don’t need names, do they (59)

we know life cannot be contained on a slogan or a prayer tablet. We know that kindness rules with the fist and chains rule with a turn to the sky, that all humans require penance and without it we all seek punishment, over and over again, until the body and mind are satisfied and we die. (131)

Jesus made a last walk, I think, and so did Hitler. We all get a turn. (135)

I wouldn’t want the idea of this thing to be in the world. Ideas are powerful things; we should take more care with them. I know there are some who would disagree — those who think ideas are like food they can taste and then spit out if they don’t like it. But ideas are stronger than that. You can get a taste of an idea inside you, and the next thing you know, it would leave. Until you do something about it. (149)

Time is measured in meaning … It is meaning that drives most people forward into time, and it is meaning that reminds them of the past, so they know where they are in the universe. (154-55)

I will go as I have hoped to become: forgotten. (225)
— This statement hit me hard. My tears started on this sentence.

She is murmuring something, a word that sounds like the most precious word of all, after someone’s name, and that word is the same as the one I wrote to her on the inside of my book: Love. (233)

Bird Box

I don’t know if I will ever be able to truly ascertain how good Josh Malerman’s Bird Box actually is. I read it this summer at probably the darkest point of the year. I lost someone very close to me, someone very dear to me. Actually, as I was reading this book (in a period of 12 hours), I lost this person I’m talking about. Sorry to be vague, but that’s the unfortunate nature of some things.

I read the synopsis of this novel and I thought it would give me a distraction that I really needed at the time. This novel came to me at the right time, and while it’s content and concepts didn’t help me get through my hard time, it did indeed offer a distraction. I wanted it stir some emotion in me other than sadness. I knew that it was in the horror genre, and honestly, I thought being scared would be better than being sad. I didn’t quite get the lack of sadness though.

In Bird Box, something is out there. Suddenly these “creatures” show up, and one glimpse drives a person into a violent mania. This sudden appearance essentially creates an apocalypse and drives people into blindness. If one ventures into the outside world, his eyes must be covered in fear of potentially seeing these creatures. Malorie is an expectant mother who joins a group of “survivors” as they try to figure out how to create a life in this new world of danger.

I didn’t get my lack of sadness from this book because it is about nothing but death. A glimpse of these creatures is “like infinity … something too complex for us to comprehend” (47) ultimately pushing that person to madness and death. Typically a person is moved to violence against those around him, and ultimately himself. There are characters, though, who just kill themselves after seeing the creatures.

It’s a strange novel. Life is illustrated through human ingenue as being so adaptable. The creatures cause mayhem and yet humanity finds a way to continue existing while they inhabit the planet. In a cliche, life goes on.

Yet in other ways there’s a questions as to whether there are really any creatures at all. It’s almost a religious debate because you can’t see them, but you see their effect. And the simple belief of their existence changes the world.

Malerman is a strong writer. So much of the novel is cloaked in uncertainty — really in unknowable blindness. It had me nervous at times. My heart was pounding at moments. I could feel the novel creeping towards the necessary fate. Again, it was mimicking my own life at the time. The days leading up to my loved one’s loss were so uncertain yet very sure.

I thought Bird Box was good. I made it through really fast because there are moments you can’t put it down. I did get a few chills, but I would call this novel more of a thriller rather than a horror book. I never felt scared, though I did feel tense for the characters. Definitely worth a read, and I’ll be watching Malerman for future work.

Favorite Passages in Bird Box

How horrible. After all this struggling, all this survival. To die because of an accident. (3)

They were safe there. Why did they leave? Is the place they are heading going to be any safer? How could it be? In a world where you can’t open your eyes, isn’t a blindfold all you could ever hope for? (98)

“We need to make progress. Otherwise we’re waiting for news in a world where there is no longer any news.” (105)

Man is the creature he fears (231)

You can smell it, too. Death. Dying. Decay. The sky is falling, the sky is dying, the sky is dead. (244)

The feeling of something inside her that must get out is the horrifying and incredible feeling she’s ever known. (248)


Lately, I have had a tough time finding any moment to read for my own pleasure. But I have had my sights on Allegiant since first reading Divergent. It didn’t disappoint. It was worth the late nights I spent reading. Insurgent finished on a rather important cliff-hanger, and Roth offered an excellent conclusion to the trilogy. As I discuss the novel, I will do my best to avoid major spoilers, though I plan to talk about the end. I will specifically mark when you should stop reading.

Allegiant diverges (har har) from the previous two novels in the way of narration. Tris and Tobias tag-team this story together, which was a nice touch. They have become so integral to one another that it makes sense to finally get perspective from each of them. Roth does a really good job at keeping the personalities and the psychologies distinct. Having Tobias’s perspective this time around also gave me a better appreciation of Tris as well. I finally got used to Tris as a narrator. (About time, right?) I always kind of found her narration somewhat aggravating in the previous novels … mostly because she’s so burdened and torn. This time around, I was really interested in her thoughts, more than Tobias’s … but I’ve also spent a little more time in her head.

In this novel, the core group of characters leaves the city to finally find out what’s beyond the fence — essentially chaos and the government. The journey is rather short, and the team soon meets the government only to find out their lives have been part of an elaborate experiment to find the best genes and solve the world’s problems. (Because up to this point “genetically damaged” people have caused the world to fall apart — according to the Bureau.) The novel plants its feet and doesn’t change scenery for a long while as the core group tries to come to grips with this new world that they haven’t known and come to grips with what’s being done inside the city. Ultimately, Tris and friends disagree with what the Bureau is planning to do to the city experiment and decide to stop the Bureau once and for all.

Essentially the experiment makes the argument that humans are genetically predisposed to be destructive and not good enough. There are a certain few, though, whose genes are perfect. But the rich part about this argument is that calling those who don’t have perfected genes, “damaged,” implies that those genes come from something that was once pure. If something is damaged, it obviously started in a better state than it ended in … and it ultimately means that it can be corrected, or mended. This causes a lot of strife, especially for those not divergent.

This argument about genetics also revolves around a perpetual lie. If people are continuously told that something is wrong with themselves, they will probably start to believe it. It takes a huge toll on Tobias; it’s revealed that he isn’t divergent after all. The news is hard to swallow and even alters his behavior.

At the heart of the novel are the serums encountered throughout the first two novels, except Allegiant focuses more on the Memory Serum and the Death Serum. The Memory Serum is fascinating because it offers a reset for the city — it offers control over people because they can be reset. It doesn’t erase knowledge in the sense that someone becomes stupid if his or her memory is erased; instead, it tackles event memories … basically I could wipe someone’s memory and then make him believe he’s living on Mars. And while this serum offers a great deal of control, it spawns so many ethical questions. Is it right to use it? But beyond that, it makes me wonder how much of ourselves are made from our memories. If you lose your memories, or if they’re altered, do you lose yourself? Tobias even comments on this: “There is something deeply wrong with taking a person’s memories …Take a person’s memories, and you change who they are” (100).

But is that true? Roth questions this even further. The Bureau decides to reset the Chicago experiment by using the Memory serum. Peter decides that he wants to be reset … he wants a second chance … to forget who he is, so maybe he can be better the next time around. Later on we find out that many aspects of his personality return. So there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer here, but it’s interesting to think about.

( *Note about spoilers:* For those of you who don’t like to read spoilers, I’ll do a brief wrap-up here. Do not read after this paragraph.) Roth has really delivered an excellent conclusion full of lots of big questions and emotional scenes. I highly recommend this, and for anyone on the fence about starting the trilogy, let this be you answer … you want to be able to read this novel.

***SPOILERS Ahead***
For those of us who have finished the novel, obviously the jaw-dropping moment in the novel is to read that Tris dies. Her death was a genuine surprise to me. It was a bold move on Roth’s part to kill her heroine, and she executed it successfully and correctly. I really welled up with emotion and for several pages, I was in disbelief until Tobias confirmed that it was indeed true. That takes talent for a novelist to be able to do that.

Tris’s death also plays to the spiritual aspects that have been present throughout the trilogy. I wrote about some in my Insurgent post. Forgiveness and second-chances have been at the forefront since Divergent began, and Allegiant continues those themes.

I think the most satisfying aspect before Tris dies is that she finds her strength. She finds her strength in what could be perceived as foolishness or weakness. She was always brave and always strong, but to face death serum and seemingly overcome it so boldly with the determination to live and help others live brings out the best in her. Finally, she truly /diverges/ from other people and in ultimate selflessness gives her life.

And I know that many will not appreciate her death. But the chapters that follow are so wonderful. The novel doesn’t end (thankfully) with Tris’s death … we get the aftermath. Tobias’s response is incredible and so real. It always amazes me how much we think we can’t live without someone and when he or she goes, our heart continues to beat. Our lungs still pull in air no matter how much we would prefer them to stop. And Roth gives us those moments with Tobias … and I think the entire novel is worth that.

Tobias reserves some memory serum for himself. His plan is to take it and forget everything. But Christina rescues him from such a cowardly fate. It’s that scene that is so wonderful, because even though it’s from Tobias’s perspective, you can feel the influence of Tris in the room with them. It takes true strength to move on with the memories that haunt us.

What I also appreciate is the power of friendship. Most of the characters are severed from their families, and it’s the friendships that make their new families. That’s been so important in my own life. Where my own family has failed me, my friend shave always been there to mend me.

Overall, I’m sad to see the story end. I made the comment recently to a friend that I didn’t think these characters were as memorable as other characters are — like Katniss and Peeta, or Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I was wrong. Since I finished, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them, where they started, and where we left them. They and their stories are memorable and worth rereading. Veronica Roth has woven a story that can appear simplistic, but she has hidden questions and themes that make this dystopia a rich place.

Favorite Passages in Allegiant

I understand why she did all those things, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still broken. (Tobias, 8)

From one tyrant to another. That is the world we know, now. (Tris, 13)

I know I should try to stop putting people in factions when I see them, but it’s an old habit, hard to break. (Tris, 16)

“People always organize into groups. That’s a fact of our existence.” (19)

It is impossible to erase my choice. Especially these. (Tobias, 23)

“Being honest doesn’t mean you say whatever you want, whenever you want. It means that what you choose to say is true.” (59)

I don’t need to relive my fears anymore. All I need to do now is try to overcome them. (Tobias, 74)

I wonder if fears ever really go away or if they just lose their power over us. (Tobias, 91)

And he’s right to say that every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling. (Tris, 123)

If they told us what to believe and we didn’t come to it on our own, is it still true? (Tris, 125)
— What a big, powerful question!

If someone offers you an opportunity to get closer to your enemy, you always take it. I know that without having learned it form anyone. (Tris, 324)

“Still don’t think genetic damage is to blame for any of these troubles?” (George, 353)

I fell in love with him. But I don’t just stay with him by default as if there’s no one else available to me. I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that I wake up, every dat that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. i choose him over and over again, and he chooses me. (Tris, 372)

I don’t belong to Abnegation, or Dauntless, or even the Divergent. I don’t belong to the Bureau or the experiment or the fringe. I belong to the people I love, and they belong to me—they, adnt he love and loyalty I give them, form my identity far more than any word or group ever could. (Tris, 455)
— Love love love this statement!

I also know, I just know, that I can survive this. (Tris, 458)
— I love self assurance like this. Rereading this kind of made me tear up again. 🙂

Since I was young, I have always known this: Life damages us, every one. We can’t escape that damage. But now, I am also learning this: We can be mended. We mend each other. (526)

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, made lots of noise when taking the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was drawn to it because I like novels that wrap around other art forms like music or paintings. We surround ourselves with those things in real life, it only makes sense that our fictional characters should do the same thing.

But alas, while I had hoped to love the novel, I have to say I am worn. There were many times I had decided to close the book and re-shelve it for some other date. But that was only after working my way through a good half of the book. There would be no turning back. I was to finish. But don’t let me completely undersell, I wanted to finish! It felt right to get to the end. Still, I trudged rather than glide.

The Goldfinch’s narrator, Theo, does a masterful job at recreating memories past that involve lots of sorrow. The novel opens with Theo in another country seemingly in a world of trouble. But he recalls memories of his mother, which begins to spin the top of this story. He takes us back to New York City when he was a preteen living with his mother. A tragedy takes her from him too soon, only to bring in the true main character of the novel, The Goldfinch by Fabritius — the painting (check spelling).

I could go on and on but a cast of characters comes into Theo’s life, which is far from being at peace. He lands in the lap of luxury to be dragged away to Las Vegas, has a stint with his sordid father, picks up a strange best friend, returns to a true family-figure, and grows up. Insert lots of drugs and booze and an innumerable amount of mistakes, and you wind up with this novel.

As I mentioned, the painting plays the greatest role yet on a muted level. It’s specter-like, making small quick appearances, but never quite leaving, always feeling somewhat intangible. Regardless, the painting acts as the conduit fro these relationships. It conducts the electricity of the namesake novel.

The majesty of the painting is how (not surprising) Theo’s life mimics the “story” in the scene. The small bird is chained as a pet. It is chained to its fate, and the painting but an observation. Theo is also chained to his fate that he can’t escape. It also seems as if he is chained to the other characters as well. Even as he seemingly leaves them behind, they show up again: His father shows back up after abandoning him, he meets Pippa after the accident, he will later live/work with Hobie, Boris becomes an invaluable part of his life that also make several reappearances. Looking at the painting, the chain is very thin, but it holds the bird to the perch.

In that the painting is an observation of a scene, so too is this novel. It is written by Theo in an effort to understand (768) (and also, he claims, for Pippa). This writing is an observation of his past but not of his full life. He says he hasn’t written it completely from memory, but rather from pieces of writing he’s written through the years — rather like brush strokes.

There are of course many other resemblances. In Theo’s interpretation of his own story, he ponders the message of the actual painting: “Why this subject? … this lonely little captive? Chained to his perch? Who knows what Fabritius was trying to tell us by his choice of the tiny subject?” (765).

There was also a great moment in a very annoying conversation between Boris and Theo towards the end: “wouldn’t all those dozens of other paintings be remain missing too? Forever maybe? Wrapped in brown paper? Still shut in that apartment? No one to look at them? Lonely and lost to the world?” (746). What if Theo had never stitched these thoughts together from his notebooks and letters? It would be a lost story to the world. And novels are most certainly art forms, so is this Tartt interjecting herself? I wonder too at modifying the question somewhat … what if the Pulitzer hadn’t been awarded, would this go unnoticed amongst the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble?

Anyway, I’m belaboring this post much like this novel carried on, and on … and on. The length really disappointed me. I don’t know that I felt a return on my investment of time. I had hoped for a sharp novel. But my appreciation for Tartt’s style only points out the perversity of my dislike. She is good, and I would consider reading other her work again.

The Goldfinch has moments were it shines profoundly, but it also has moments that are as dull as the plain background in the painting. The beauty of the novel stems from art imitating art as the novel does towards the painting. But I think you may be better off just appreciating Fabritius’s art and passing this novel over.

Favorite Passages from The Goldfinch

“People die, sure,” my mother was saying. “But it’s so heartbreaking and unneccesary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.” (28)

I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats. (28)

When we are sad — at least like this — it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the things that don’t change. (281)

“None of us ever find enough kindness in the world, do we?” (282)
— God, I love this.

An object — any object — was worthy whatever you could get somebody to pay for it. (457)

“Hard to put things right. You don’t often get that chance. Sometimes all you can do is not get caught.” (550)

starched shirts and suits fresh from the cleaners’ went a long, long way toward hiding a multitude of sins (568)

To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole (603)

Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly “worry” was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person. (692)

“Isn’t everything worthwhile a gamble? Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange backdoors?” (758)

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are. (761)

I’ve written all of this, oddly, with the idea that Pippa will see it someday—which of course she won’t. No one will, for obvious reasons.
— Au contraire

And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love. (770)
— Ok Matthew McConaghey

That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise form the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. (771)

American War

American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, has the makings of a great story: a country beleaguered by civil war, ravaged by climate change and natural disasters, and a broken, complicated character weaving her way throughout. Sounds good, right? I thought so, too, but after finishing the novel, I’m so underwhelmed. I found it to be a half-baked dystopian story that tried to use elements like war and disaster to spark intrigue, when really they were garnishes that could have been easily tossed to the side. In fact the two were kind of downplayed to the point I never stopped to meditate on these events.

When it became clear that El Akkad wasn’t writing a thriller, the story tried to become a character piece, and it flatlined for me. The characters never made sense, especially the main character, Sarat, because we didn’t get to deep dive into what made her character who she was. It seemed like you would flip the page and suddenly she’s someone new. I had a hard time understanding her motives regarding anything … and it wasn’t because she was mysterious, I think she’s just simply underdeveloped.

Overall, just a disappointing novel to me because I don’t think it even challenged the complexities and ideologies of war. I think there were moments where El Akkad wanted to take on those ideas but simply held the idea, looked at it, and put it back on the shelf. I think I kept reading with hope, but I was sorely let down.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

In my ever continuing quest to read more non-fiction, I chose The Lost City of the Monkey God because the premise reminded me so much of one of the opening scenes of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. While there are no physical monsters, there is a consistent quest, riddled with incredible political as well as geological challenges, to excavate the story of the fabled “White City.” While traveling in the remote parts of Honduras looking for the White City the team battles rain, snakes, and bugs. After leaving the dig and returning to the states, the team finds they have been stricken with an incurable disease.

Douglas Preston takes readers on a part historical journey and part biological study of the areas of Honduras that become known as T1 – T4. The book reads like an extended National Geographic piece and is incredibly fascinating from beginning to the end – actually Preston covered the topic for the publication in the piece called, “Lure of the Lost City.” The book could also be the prep notes to a Hollywood film, reading like an adventure with plenty of background information to round out the story.

I found myself feeling incredibly small on this little rock of our in the universe. To think there are still unexplored areas of our planet ruled my wildlife and vegetation – and that hide the remnant artifacts of vanished civilizations – is enough sustenance for the imagination to persist on forever.

I most applaud Preston for the final chapter. He does an incredible job of wrapping up the pieces and links it back to the fear and awe we, as humans, should bestow upon disease all around us. With the ever encroaching threat of global warming, these fears become less of a nightmare and more of a possibility. Reading about the power of disease to truly decimate our world as it has the worlds of civilizations before us is humbling. It also makes me miss the days when I worked in public health and once again shows the relevance of such organizations that don’t get near enough support. Our reliance on our modern medicine and technology is a theater production that we have whipped the ills of the world, but as Preston points out, stronger threats lurk in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to jump into the path of humanity.

I didn’t rush through this book. It wasn’t a page-turner for me, but each time I picked it up, I enjoyed reading Preston’s account. His writing is sharp, and his voice is pure, sharing both what’s important to the story and him. I think his rumination on his experience left him with powerful statements to make, which he did an excellent job of at the very end. I can see myself returning to that chapter in the future.

Favorite Passages in The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Honduran rainforests are disappearing at a rate of at least 300,000 acres a year. Between 1990 and 2010, Honduras lost over 37 percent of its rainforest to clear-cutting. (72)

Archaeology is in a race again deforestation; by the time archaeologists can reach a rainforest site to survey it, it may well be gone, fallen prey first to the logger’s ax and then the looter’s shovel. (72)

mere words are inadequate to express the chromatic infinities. (96)

We were flying above a primeval End, looking for a lost city using advanced technology to shoot billions of laser beams into a jungle that no human beings had entered for perhaps five hundred years: a twenty-first-century assault on an ancient mystery. (97)

It amazed me that a valley so primeval and unspoiled could still exist in the twenty-first century. It was truly a lost world, a place that did not want us and where we did not belong. We planned to enter the ruins the following day. What would we find? I couldn’t even begin to imagine it. (138)

People need history in order to know themselves, to build a sense of identity and pride, continuity, community, and hope for the future. (288)

In the last ten thousand years, as human population densities increased, disease moved into center stage of human affairs. Pandemics changed the very arc of human history. Despite our dazzling technology, we are still very much at the mercy of pathogens, old and new. (289)

The world is now divided into Third and First, not Old and New. (296)

No civilizations has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate. (302)

I’ll Give You the Sun

My literal soul quivered on every single page from the unexpected laughs to the warranted tears in Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. Once again, I approached a YA novel with reservations and preconceived notions of how it would unfold. I was so very mistaken, much like the time I prejudged The Fault in Our Stars.

There is this poor idea that floats around regarding YA saying there is no depth to it. There are many great examples that prove that idea wrong, and I’ll Give You the Sun is one of those examples. The depth and richness of all the characters, especially the two main narrators, is so thirst quenching.

The plot is driven by two main characters, twins Noah and Jude. In normal twin-ness they seemingly complete each other so much so that they know one another singularly as NoahandJude. However the narration is split between characters and time frames. Noah gets to narrate the past, while Jude gets to narrate the present. The time frames are split by a tragic event that leaves both characters scarred and hurt and torn from one another until the thought of NoahandJude becomes mythical. Using art as a force to divide but ultimately heal, Nelson delivers an emotional home run, searching for what it means to be true to oneself.

The identity struggles both characters go through is so enriching and fulfilling. Jude is labeled early on as that girl and loses herself completely by trying not to be that person. Almost like she can avoid being that girl only if she is no one at all. But she has this awesome transformation that comes from her realization that she is the one who gets to decide who she is … finally realizing she can say, “No, that’s not me.”

Noah struggles with his identity, too. From the get-go of the story, we know he’s gay; he’s attracted to other guys. But he’s skirting that label (which understandably at 13 he may not be ready for); in fact, we never even hear the word, “gay,” until the last quarter of the novel, when it’s at acceptance. The pejorative, “fag,” is used; however, it doesn’t seem to stimulate any identification quandary in Noah.

Again, art is the powerhouse of this novel. Both Noah and Jude are gifted artistically and through their gifts they navigate the telling of this story. In the “present” story, Jude and Noah are hardly on speaking terms, for an array of reasons. At the turn of the novel, Jude comes up with the idea that she’ll carve an image of her and Noah from stone. I think it’s poignant that she is never able to free NoahandJude from the rock she’s carving. She doesn’t need to; they are already free.

Of course, art is also a vessel for healing. Isn’t it always? “Remake the world,” is used several times. Art is the brush that remakes the world. It definitely does so for the two main characters. It creates an entirely new world for them.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a remarkable coming-of-age story with genuine characters that are completely real to me. NoahandJude, wholly and separately, are people I know, people I want to know. The depth and the emotion this novel is able to extract from an individual makes it deserving of all the awards it has won and certainly deserving of your attention.

Favorite Passages in I’ll Give You the Sun

No one tells you how gone gone really is, or how long it lasts. (295)

But what if I don’t need her permission, her approval, her praise to be who I want to be and do what I love? What if I’m in charge of my own damn light switch? (307)

People die … but your relationship with them doesn’t. It continues and is ever-changing. (367)

Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who’s pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life? (369)

The Martian

I must admit, Andy Weir’s The Martian captured me back in 2014 by the cover alone. I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation in 2015. I don’t really consider myself a space enthusiast, but I’m definitely interested in space exploration — from a plausible, current standpoint. That’s the nice thing about Weir’s sci-fi novel: it has the technicality of true space exploration sans alien foes.

In fact, the Martian in question is actually a stranded earthling, Mark Watney. After a sand storm cancels the current mission on Mars, a freak accident leaves Watney stranded — his crew must abandon him (thinking he is dead). Watney pulls together his resources and genius, working on a plan to survive as long as possible, and maybe, just maybe contact NASA. To his luck, NASA just barely makes the connection based on satellite imagery that Watney lives and starts working overtime on a plan to safely bring him back home.

We spend the novel at this 30,000 foot view. There is no getting to know the characters intimately. Watney tells his portion of the story through logs (journal-type entries that tend to be more technical). In fact, my interest started waning because the first few chapters were like this, but luckily there is also narrative about what’s happening at NASA. So there’s a good mix of the logs vs. narrative.

I was a little disappointed with the lack of character development, though. The technical nature of Watney’s logs really fed the realism, and it was fascinating for a time, but after a while, I was a little upset that I didn’t get to know him more — at least other than his goofiness, which really annoyed me after a while. I also didn’t care too much for the descriptive math and technical jargon. It seemed endless at points. I understand that was his main focus, but I just wish we had more insight into Watney as a character.

Other characters were also a little flat or generic, like Annie, the PR diva. I see what Weir was reaching for when modeling her character, but she didn’t feel at all real to me. Her aggressiveness/anger seemed really unwarranted and unprofessional for a director of communications.

Overall, I think the story was fantastic, and it kept me interested and engaged enough to compel me to finish. I was pleased with minor feelings of disappointment as noted above. But for someone’s first novel, I think it is an excellent start. There is plenty of action, and if you like space travel, this one is for you.

The best part of the novel for me is the idea of people banning together to help save this one guy. A good deal of effort is put forth for his rescue, and that’s refreshing and illustrative on many levels of the human spirit: hope and the desire to help others. It reminds me a lot of the film, Captain Philips, for the US to send highly trained folks to rescue someone technically non-essential — just inspiring. We all matter. One of the last passages in Weir’s novel says, “they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.” I couldn’t agree more.

Favorite Passages in The Martian

Turns out even NASA can’t improve on duct tape. (32)

I am /completely/ alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. (75)

It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years! (99)

I’m the first person to be a lone on an entire planet. (99)

Sure, I might not get rescued. But I won’t be alone. (116)

Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped. (220)

Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do. (224)