The Book Thief : Markus Zusak

This book is, hands down, the best book I have read in 2009 so far. Considering the number of days left in this year and the amount of time I get to read these days, this book might remain the best book of the year.

What is the book about? Here is what the publishers say:
It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.

Words - written and spoken - are central to the book. This book is unusual in many ways. One, the structure of the book is something I have never seen earlier. It is broken up into chapters based on the books that the protagonist steals. Two, the narrator of the book is also unusual. I don't want to reveal it here because I don't want to deprive you of the thrill you get when you discover for yourself. Three, the actual idea of putting a book thief in the middle of Nazi Germany in 1940s - who would have thought? The good thing is it works really well. The author maintains the gravity required to describe the burning Germany and the humor and the wit required to captivate the readers.

I just loved the writing style. It is witty and humorous. Sometimes it is the kind of humor where you are laughing at yourself, unknowingly. I am guessing the author loves colors. He uses colors to describe almost all scenes in the book. In fact, the book starts colors. There were many sentences and paragraphs which made me stop reading and think. Some got a chuckle out of me and some disturbed me. I wish I had made a note of some so that I could quote here. Google came to the rescue and here are some.
First the colours.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.

The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.

…For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.

For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
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.

“… it was raining on Himmel Street when the world ended for Liesel Meminger.
The sky was dripping.
Like a tap that a child has tried its hardest to turn off but hasn’t quite managed.”

If I could, I would quote the entire book here, that's how much I liked it. Why did I like the book? The writing was what got me initially. The story will tug at your heart. And the characters - Liesel and Rudy and Max and the Hubermanns - each one of them will remain with me for a long time. What I will never forget though, is the narrator.

A Sleeping and a Forgetting : William Dean Howells

I won this book in a giveaway hosted by John Self. I have been following his blog since a long time now and find his reviews insightful. He is one of those readers who doesn't stop at just 'I liked it' or 'I hated it', but goes on to tell us what the book is actually about so that we can decide for ourselves whether to read the book or not.

Melville Hose Publishing has come out with a series 'The Art of the Novella' in which they aim to publish short fiction or novella - too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story. All the books in the series have the same plain yet attractive cover. These are small, weightless books which can fit into your bag or purse and can keep you engrossed for an hour.

This novella is about a woman who witnesses her mother's death and is so shocked at the incident that she stays unconscious for a few days and when she wakes up from it, she doesn't remember the incident. The shock damages her memory and she forgets people, names, faces and incidents. A doctor starts treating her at her father's request. The rest of the book is about the doctor's interactions with the patient and this is the best part of the book. I found myself thinking about the exchanges between the doctor and the woman about dreams, reality, memory, character, identity and so on. One particular passage that I found really interesting:
He had always said to himself that there could be no persistence of personality, of character, of identity, of consciousness, except through memory; yet here, to the last implication of temperament, they all persisted. The soul that was passing in its integrity through time without the helps, the crutches, of remembrance by which his own personality supported itself, why should not it pass so through eternity without that loss of identity which was equivalent to annihilation?

The passage might not seem relevant here, but works really well in the book.

I have to sincerely thank John for two things. One, for hosting the giveaway and two, for introducing me to W.D.Howells. If not for the giveaway, I would have never discovered this author. The book was like a treat - short and sweet. It was entertaining as well as thought provoking. If only I could get hold of more books from this series - don't know how many more gems it holds.

PS: This novella is available online.

The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold

Almost everybody on my book forum was raving about this, so I had to read it to know what all the hype was about. It often happens that a hyped book fails to impress me and this is so true about this book.

The Lovely Bones is about Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered by her neighbor. She goes to heaven and looks at Earth and narrates the story about her murder and her family's plight after her death. The cops are unable to locate her body, but even though Susie knows where it is, she doesn't have the power to reveal its location to those on Earth. The book traces the lives of Susie's family, her friends and her murderer for a few years post Susie's death.

I loved the character of Susie's father but her mother irritated me. I feel her actions were not justified. Another character, Ruana Singh, Susie's friend's mother is mysteriously interesting - was it intentional or the author just left out certain parts about this character? Susie's grandmom is another person who stays with you for sometime.

The book grabs you from the first page. The initial few pages are disturbing, that is where Susie describes her rape and murder. It is more so disturbing because the tone of the narrator is very plain, emotionless. The pace dips a bit somewhere in the middle of the book and I lost interest there. I could see what was coming and that bored me.

What I liked most about this book is the author's take on the heaven. She uses her imagination to create what heaven could be like and after you read her version, you feel that is exactly how heaven should be. I liked the storyline, but felt the author could have done better than this. Many people will disagree, so be it.

It is not a must-read, but it is a nice book if you don't have anything compelling to read.

PS: The book is going to made into a movie. It will be interesting to see how heaven is picturized!
Song: Bade Achhe Lagte Hain
Movie: Balika vadhu (1976)
Music Director: R D Burman
Singer(s): Amit Kumar
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi

When you want to express your love in simple words, this is the song you should sing. There is no mincing words here, everything is straight and to the point - bade achhe lagte hain. These simple words make this song a favorite with lovers. The singer, Amit Kumar, son of the versatile singer Kishore Kumar, sounds so much like his father that it is no surprise many people think this song has been sung by Kishoreda himself. Music is by Panchamda. Anand Bakshi has penned the words. The song is from Balika Badhu (no connection whatsoever with the Avika Gor starrer television series Balika Vadhu), which has Sachin Pilgaonkar in the lead. Sounds like an interesting movie. It is on my TBW (To Be Watched) list. If anyone has watched this movie, do let me know what you think.

This post is part of the Song of the Week series.

The Angel's Game: Carlos Ruiz Zafon

After thoroughly enjoying Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind, I couldn't wait to read his next book. Though his works are available in Spanish, not all of them are translated to English. The first to be translated was Shadow of the Wind and the next one was The Angel's Game, both of them translated by Lucia Graves. I wonder when the next will be out.

The Angel's Game is similar to Shadow of the Wind in many ways. They both have literature at the core and deal with characters reappearing from the past. And they both have Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The protagonist of The Angel's Game, David Martin, is a writer who writes crime thriller series under a pseudonym. He is commissioned to write a novel on religion by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, who is supposed to have died decades earlier. As David starts uncovering the mystery behind Corelli, he learns a few secrets about his own life. If the last sentence reads like a line out of the back cover of the book, well, that's the best I can do. I don't want to include anything here that might turn out to be a spoiler.

A dark tower house with spirits, dead people appearing, a witch, disguised identities and a love story in the middle of all this - the book has all the ingredients that make this an entertaining read, although I didn't like The Angel's Game as much as I did the first book. One, the book was too long. I think the author tried to include a lot of things in one book. Zafon says in his interview that he initially planned to include four stories in a single book titled 'The Shadow of the Wind'. But when he realized that the book is going to be huge, he decided to make four books out of it and call the series 'The Cemetery of Forgotten Books'. Another complaint about this book is, I feel the author hasn't tied up all the loose strings. When you finish reading a mystery book, you should get the feeling of a job well done. I didn't get that feeling here. It was as if the book ended too abruptly. And the epilogue is so silly, I don't know why it was even part of the book.

I wouldn't highly recommend this book, but if you are into mysteries and crime thrillers, this book will not be a complete waste of time.

SOTW: Rail Gaadi

Song of the week: Rail Gaadi
Movie: Ashirwad (1968)
Music Director: Vasant Desai
Singer(s): Ashok Kumar
Lyrics: Harindranath Chattopadhyay

While the whole country is celebrating Teacher's Day, I would like to dedicate this song to all the little kids. This is one of those children songs which is enjoyed by the small and the big alike. The first time I heard this song, I was laughing my head off. I didn't know that such an entertaining song existed and more importantly couldn't believe that it was sung by Ashok Kumar. Dadamoni and singing? And for kids?

Dadamoni has packed a lot of energy in his singing. That part where he is ringing the bell for the train is so sincere. The lyrics of the song is great - you hear the names of a lot of stations.

The song is from the movie Ashirwad, which I know nothing about. I plan to watch the movie even it is just for this song and another one which is quite similar, Naani ki naav chali. This being a Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie, it will be a good watch.

There is some confusion over the lyricist of this song. Music India Online lists Gulzar as the lyricist, but the album I have 'Remembering Hrishikesh Mukherjee' has Harindranath Chattopadhyay as the lyricist and Earth Music agrees with this.

Paths of Glory – Jeffrey Archer

Paths of Glory is a fictionalized account of George Mallory, a mountaineer who tried to conquer the Mount Everest in 1924, but nobody knows whether he succeeded because he died during that attempt. It is not confirmed whether Mallory died on the way down (which makes him the first man to have scaled Mount Everest) or on the way up. Many people believe that Mallory died before he climbed the highest point. Jeffrey Archer thinks otherwise. A newspaper in New Zealand called Archer’s book an insult to Sir Edmund Hillary, who is hailed as the first man to reach the top of the world.

This book is Archer’s take on this mystery. The book opens with the discovery of Mallory’s body on the mountain, so there is no need to guess the hero’s fate later in the book. Archer builds up readers’ confidence in Mallory by depicting him as a man with special skills. He shows Mallory as a courageous kid who doesn’t know what fear means. He portrays Mallory’s character in such a way that it is hard for the readers to believe that Mallory can fail at anything.

Keeping the mystery and the controversies aside, this book is an entertaining read. Archer is a wonderful story teller and knows how he should paint his characters so as to please his readers. He knows when to end a chapter to ensure that the reader hops onto the next one without any interval. I have always liked Archer for his gift of engaging his readers in an entertaining story with interesting characters. Reading Archer is like watching a Hindi masala movie – quick, entertaining and thrilling. This might not be the best book of Jeffrey Archer, but it still is a good book to read.