Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Talk: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is one book I don't feel like making a 'review' for. I'll just write about how it made me feel and what I think about it. Back when I had just started this blog, it was a wonderful experience being super-active, finding other bloggers from all parts of the world sharing the same love for books. During that time when a blogger friend put up a beautiful review for The Book Thief and personally also suggested to me to read it, I promptly put it up on my TBR. I wasn't so prompt in reading it, though. Two years later, recuperating from a dull-mood-cum-reading-slump, I finally picked it up and read it over a period of many days. Half of the book was read while travelling to and from college and the rest of it staying at home. 

To say it's a beautiful book would be a stark understatement. In the world of books and stories, this one is definitely among the many good books ever written, but it's something that will leave a big impression on you and stay with you all the time. 

~~~ The Book Thief ~~~

Written by: Markus Zusak
Published: 2005 by Picador
Pages: 584
Find it at: Flipkart / Amazon
Beauty Factor: Unmatched

Leisel Meminger, 9, is going to Munich to her new foster parents with her brother, Werner. It's 1939, Germany under the rule of Hitler. She doesn't know her father's a communist and her mother's decided to leave them in someone else's care for a better life. Her brother doesn't make it through as he is greeted by death on the way. It's during his quick, unceremonious funeral ritual by the railway tracks that Leisel steals her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook. 

The book has a lot in terms of the story. Hitler, war times, school, friendships and live when your country's in a war. Air raids, seeing Jews being taken away, burning books. But it's not just this story. That's what struck me as the most beautiful part of this book. You'll never get enough of it in a single read. Narrated from the POV of death, the book tells a lot more about humanity, life, love and loss than it might otherwise have. It's all so beautifully engraved in the implicit meanings of those phrases narrated by death that if you could use your imagination, you would get the depth of meanings.

One of the central themes of the book is also one of my favorites: the power of words. Words are what Hitler used to turn the minds of people and words are what gave Leisel the meaning of life. She could not read at first when she reaches her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Hans, her new 'papa', is a loving accordion player and painter, who helps Leisel learn to read by staying up all night or whenever she needed to. His character is one of those gems you feel are too good to be staying in a war-affected world. Rosa has a big heart, but a fast mouth. She loves to call everyone Saukerl or Saumensch. 

It's all profound, even though the story is about the everyday life and events of a German girl, living in a German household. The war and suffering was for all, not just the Jews and other countries Hitler invaded. It was for his own people too. Leisel's life gets a new meaning when they come in contact with a Jew. He further is able to tell her how words are life. 

Then there's Rudy, the boy with hair the color of lemons: Leisel's best friend and confidante. Also, partner-in-crime for innocent stealing. However, books Leisel stole alone and for herself. Those books are comfort for her, the words she reads and later on writes are what save her. I cannot write about what happens in the story anymore, because like I said, this book is not just a story. It's a multitude of emotions, meaning of life and humanity and if you've read this book the way it should be read, you'd have learned some humility as well.

I've watched the movie adaptation twice and I say it for very few adaptations, but the movie is brilliant! The characters, the portrayal, the mood and tone of the movie is simply perfect. It's every bit as moving as the book. Recommended for: every single person, especially to remind everyone about the sufferings of war and what it is to be human, about the need to be loving and kind towards all. 

"I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant." 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: Kids' Letters to President Obama

Did you know how excited and interested kids are about their Presidents? The first time I witnessed an example was having the opportunity to look through a room in Rashtrapati Bhawan (New Delhi) that held numerous, extremely crafty stuff kids had made for the President APJ Abdul Kalam in India. This book, Kids' Letters to President Obama was the second such example that would remind one of the strong beliefs and innocent trust little people have towards their leaders. 

Title: Kids' Letters to President Obama
Edited by: Bill Adler and Bill Adler, Jr.
Published: 2009 by Ballantine Books (Random House)
Pages: 173
Contains: Over 200 incredible, heart-warming letters
Find it atAmazon
My Rating: 4/5!

Bill Adler, one of the editors of the book had edited Kids' Letters to President Kennedy almost 50 years ago, when Kennedy was the President most adored by little children. This time Bill Adler, Jr joined him and considers this book as the one that gave him most joy while editing. The book contains letters that little kids have written to President Obama, in various formats, kreativ spelings, about different topics that form an important aspect of their little lives. And even my remark throughout the book was, 'how cutee!' I wouldn't restrict the review to just that.

It was an experience, looking at how amazingly creative kids can be with their ideas, how they believe in their leader and trust him to make America better, how they believe the President would be interested in knowing about their life, family, interests and concerns. The book is divided into sections, having categorized similar letters into distinct heads. Example, Chapter 1 is titled, "WOW, You're the President! You ROCK!' which has letters where kids (ranging from age 3 to 13 and not just from the US) expressed their happiness on Obama being elected President. The next section is Take my advice, Mr. President, where they've listed and suggested things the President could do to make the world a better place to live in. And believe me, these are no ordinary letters. You'd be amazed to see what kind of ideas these kiddies get, and they believe, genuinely, that the President should follow those. 

A snapshot of the letters!

My favorite section is Say Hi to your Daughters for me- and Mrs. Obama and Your Dog where the letters show how excited kids are to see the President having a family like their own living in the White House. While some wish for a playdate with Malia and Sasha, some want to play music for the President, some invite the First Family over to their place and many of them have suggestions for the breed of dog they should get. The best (and the cutest) thing is having a snapshot of these letters just as they were written (like in the picture above). It's fun to read a letter written by a small hand, with words in varying fonts, little sketches on the edges, and extremely creative spellings. (Who would've thought 'conchrey' would be country? Or California could also be spelled as 'Calafornya'?) 

All in all, it's a delightful read! I'm not sure if it's something you would like to read in one go, though. It's more like a bedside table book: pick it up whenever you feel like, open it from any page and just read a few letters. It's very warm, optimism-inducing and would make you smile each time you pick it up! Recommended for .... everyone, I suppose. Especially if you're looking for a fun, light read. :)

                                        Thank you Random House Publishers for this book! :)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Divergent and the Dystopian Trend..

Note: This is a guest post authored by Elizabeth Eckhart (Find her on Twitter at @elizeckhart).

Divergent, which premiered on March 21st in US and has already surpassed $100 million at the US box office, feels in many ways like familiar territory for fans of Young Adult films adapted from books: a dystopian future setting (Chicago, specifically) that includes a rigidly divided society and oppressive ruler; a gutsy female lead actress (Shailene Woodley) as Tris, who is the “special one”, clearly destined to break out of the confines her world is trying to force her into; a hunky male love interest named “Four” (Theo James); and plenty of training montages of Tris growing stronger, bouncing back from getting hit, etc.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s somewhat similar to The Hunger Games, a movie whose model of blockbuster success undoubtedly taught Lionsgate executives that adapting wildly successful young adult books was a pretty surefire way to bring in dump trucks full of money, regardless of the quality of the films themselves (the second Hunger Games movie Catching Fire is out on DVD/BluRay and streaming online now, details here). The Divergent books, penned by twenty-something first time author Veronica Roth and seemingly parallel to The Hunger Games series, sold and continues to sell so many books that a film adaptation was a near certainty.

For those who haven’t read the books, Divergent covers the story of Tris, who is in the perilous position of having tested as a “divergent” in her war-torn future society’s round of trials by which young adults are forced to choose one of five distinct classes based on their personality traits - “Abnegation” for those that selflessly help others, “Dauntless” for those that are brave and bold, “Amity” for the peaceful who work hard and keep to themselves, “Candor” for the most truthful, and “Erudite” for the intelligent. Murmurs of a conspiracy against the established order set the backdrop for Tris and other new initiates to be psychologically and physically tested, and when Tris finds out she is “divergent”, and thus able to fit into any class, she also realizes she’s therefore a threat to the social order, setting up the main thrust of the plot.


I found Divergent to be mildly entertaining, but ultimately underwhelming. Shailene Woodley is a good actress, but there’s just something flat and sort of one dimensional about the character of Tris as the screenwriters adapted her that makes it hard for the movie to come to life as much as Hunger Games did. As much as I loved the book, I kept feeling like the movie really wanted her to be a “kicking butt and taking names” type of super-heroine while also simultaneously portraying a sort of delicate, emotional fragility, but the result on the screen just doesn’t come together. Even Tris’s romance with Four seems a little flat, to the point where a few times I almost felt taken out of the movie and more like I was just watching some awkward acting from the side of a movie set.

I wound up mostly enjoying the movie (probably because I wanted to like it so much), but ultimately wasn’t that impressed, unfortunately. There are definitely some nice action scenes, and the testing sequences came out looking pretty cool, but for the most part I feel like a lot was lost in the adaptation - the book has a nice, brisk pace to it that keeps you turning pages, while the movie sometimes felt like it was stumbling a bit in trying to find a rhythm, and I just didn’t connect emotionally with a lot of the acting. Also, compared to the Hunger Games, I couldn’t help feeling like the setting was a little bit drab and boring - a similar story about survival against all the odds, but without all the colorful clothes, food, scenery and other trappings from the world of Katniss.

Regardless of what I think, though, sequels to Divergent have already been announced, so we’ll see if the movies can improve down the line, or if we’ll eventually see a gritty reboot of some type - I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood. For now, I definitely have to say I prefer the books, just as I prefer the Hunger Games books to their film adaptations.

Thanks Elizabeth for this interesting and relevant post! :)

PS- Divergent movie releases on April 11, 2014 in India. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Magic of Classics!

There must be a reason why classics are called classics. There's this whole aura around them that makes you feel so different, and not just because they belong to a specific period in time. There was dystopia back then too, futuristic stuff, incredible science fiction and best of all, incomparable fantasy. What is it that makes us go back to classics for that 'complete and unabridged' feeling of satisfaction? How are classics so appealing? In this online course (MOOC) called The Future of Storytelling, they mentioned the way literature transformed; how earlier it was "more group and culture based" and now it is "more introverted and individualistic". 

Stories were more about a place as a setting and then about the characters who form an integral part of the story. Important characters were barely just one. There were complete, imaginative worlds where fantasy came in. Humans interacted with other living forms by talking and hanging out with them without feeling weirded out. If you got to take advice from a caterpillar, you simply did. You did not make faces or feel strange or think it's unnatural. If you wanted to fly to Neverland and meet naughty pixie fairies, you simply needed to believe that you could fly. You didn't wait for a superhero or logic to come into the picture. I love that optimism, that simple, unbiased acceptance of the world for what it is. I love the lack of criticism and analysis. It makes me as a reader feel how vast and believable everything is, how it is simple and possible if you just believe in it. It's not always how it happens in real life but you're far better off if you hold on to these beliefs you inculcate while reading, one major reason being that you're always optimistic!

Let's consider some examples. Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie) is an imaginative story beginning with the simple idea of a boy who doesn't want to grow up, which is pretty much a normal feeling in kids. When you read the story, however, you're so drawn into that boy's adventures, his feelings and thoughts and behaviour, his interactions, other characters who're associated with him and a whole new world of Neverland where you meet pixies and pirates. When you read The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum), you see a normal girl in Dorothy who falls into an adventurous situation and there're scarecrows and talking animals and witches and castles.  

I remember being absolutely petrified and hooked to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (R.L. Stevenson) when I first read it, just because it was so different (and scary) from anything I had ever read. It was a piece of wonder and I was nothing short of amazed. It's such a deep story, coming out of the concept of man having two sides: the good and the evil. A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) was just as creative and although slightly dark, it's beautiful in the way it's told. There are many other examples, including Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), The Invisible Man and The Time Machine (H.G. Wells) that make you feel so warm and nice and 'classic' when you read them! 

Have an open and accepting mind, and you'll love all these stories. I watched Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll) yesterday when its second movie adaptation was running on HBO. I haven't read the book as yet but I do like the story. It's so full of characters, yet you don't feel lost. It's a small, unique world. It shows the protagonist of the story as a strong, dreamy and imaginative girl who likes to do as she likes and has the ability to stand up for her own. Apart from what she does in Wonderland, it's quite cool the way she behaves when she's at the family gathering with her family and relatives, the way she signs up for a business deal instead of allowing her mother to marry her to a lord. This book came out in 1865. Awesome, much? :)

It's not just about the magical, it's about the stories based on societies and human-people too. They're all incredibly detailed and imaginative. I'm not denying the unique essence of modern literature, new genres and quick reads, but classics such as these have their own sense of time. You always feel different with such books. If you haven't read these, I'd suggest you should! A personal recommendation would be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and although I read it in school, an abridged version most probably, I'd still think it's worth a read.

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.” 


What do you think? Do you like these books as much? 

PS- How about the blog's new look? ;)


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