Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night.
Clouds were stitched around it.
Curtains of rain were drawn around the car.
The horizon was the colour of milk. Cold and fresh. Poured out, amongst the bodies.
Tears like crystal floated down his skin,
despite the fact that he was not crying.
The tears had been bashed out of him….
….held together by the quiet gathering of words.
The words were visible.
They dropped from his mouth like jewels.
As the book quivered in her lap, the secret sat in her mouth.
It made itself comfortable.
It crossed its legs.
Her blood loudened.
The sentences blurred.
She couldn’t tell exactly where the words came from.
They arrived and kneeled next to the bed.
The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed,
emptying onto the floor like powder.

The Book Thief No, it’s not a poem but it could easily be one. This book is like a long, long poem about a little girl and her love for stories. In a world turned upside down during the Second World War in Germany, there were few other things that could offer comfort. Food was scarce and suffering aplenty. Death was telling a story while taking souls away. I guess you could say he was giving something back to the world: a story, Liesel Meminger’s story. The book thief.

The book begins with a death. This is, after all, how the narrator got in. Liesel is a little girl whose family broke apart during the war. Taken away from her mother, she was given into the care of a foster family who lived in the city of Molching, on Himmel Street. She began to love them, Mama and Papa, she of the loud mouth and cursing words, and he, whose music and gentle ways brought back hope into her heart. She began to make friends: Rudy – the boy with “hair the color of lemons” who becomes her constant companion and best friend, Max – the fist-fighting Jew who had visions of defeating the Fuhrer in a boxing match, and the mayor’s wife, whose grief was pierced by the little girl who hungered for words so badly she began to steal her books. One at a time.

A small note: Himmel means Heaven.

Ironic, isn’t it, when there was so much suffering. But there was also joy, for the words from Liesel’s stolen books held the people together during times of grief, of hiding, and during those dark slowly moving hours of air raids, when nobody knew if they were going to leave the shelter alive or die a crowded cold death.
As I was moving on with the story, I felt like this was not exactly someone’s story, not Death’s story, or Liesel’s, but an ode to books and the worlds inside them. I remember Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read about burning books and not think about this particular one – and how little it takes to create an entire universe with a pencil, some sheets of paper and a bit of imagination. I love books that make me cry and this was one of them. It happened several times. I couldn’t help it. Especially when I got to that story in the middle – a story within a story. There were actually two, and one was an autobiography, the other was about the Fuhrer, and a friendship. The drawings were pretty good, too.

The writing is beautiful and delicate and heartbreaking. It flows and binds itself around you, squeezing your heart. The little “poem” at the beginning of this review is but a tiny fraction of what it looks like. The rest is even better. Cruelty, suffering, friendship, love, bound together in words – found in the books Liesel steals and reads but also in the ones she and Max eventually write, because that’s what happens when you take so many words in – sometimes they spill out.

I got this book from a friend at a book club. I had wanted to read it for a long time. And then she came and said five magic words: I’ll lend it to you. Now that I’ve finished, I’ll have to give it back. But I will buy my own copy because I would very much like to read about Liesel again someday, even if the words won’t be new. Sometimes, some books are even better the second time around. I can’t wait to find out.

Another small note: the movie is coming out next month.

RIP8main300 I’ve read this book for R.I.P. hosted by Carl at stainlesssteeldroppings.

*Read in October, 2013

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Dracula – Bram Stoker

I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt. I fear. I see strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul. God keep me, if only for the sake of those dear to me!

RIP8main300 This is the second book I’ve read for the R.I.P. Challenge hosted by Carl at stainlesssteeldroppings

I love horror stories. The terrors of the night which make sleep hard to conquer and make horrible monsters out of every shape in the room, where mirrors are portals to the unknown and the slightly open door of a closet becomes a stone door to a deep and dark cellar, where the wind shaking the curtains changes them into diaphanous veils worn by beguiling beings sent to harm. The quiet of the night unbroken but for the sounds in my head, small, insignificant sounds which I can only hear with my eyes closed. Sweet sleep that finally comes only to bring dreams of fantastical white creatures flying in the night, converging on a tower, their mouths red with blood. Such a powerful dream, I still remember waking up and being surprised to see I was in my bed and not running for my life on the streets of an unknown city filled with people whose fascination with the creatures was bigger than the fear of them.

Dracula I had put off reading Dracula for a long time. After watching its 1992 movie adaptation (with Gary Oldman as Count Dracula), I was afraid the printed work would have no surprises for me. How glad I was to see my fears turned to nothing!
The story is told in the form of letters, journal entries and newspaper clippings. Jonathan Harker, a young English solicitor, is sent by his employer to Transylvania, Romania, to explain to a nobleman of the country the legal procedures connected with some properties the nobleman recently acquired in England. His experience at Castle Dracula is unforgettable in a very horrible way, and barely escaping with his life, Jonathan makes his way back home only to have his sanity shaken yet again when he sees the Count on the street.
His journal becomes a powerful tool in dealing with the monster he knows would have taken his life. His wife Mina, proves to be one of his most intelligent allies in the great adventure that will have him question his judgment and worth as a human being. In fact, the whole story becomes a fight strategy, and the characters each have their own part to play in the battle against the evil embodied by the Count. Mina’s friend, Lucy Westenra, becomes the count’s first victim, a turning point in the story, which serves to strengthen the belief that the enemy is someone so extraordinary that unusual measures have to be taken and the outmost secrecy preserved.
Lucy’s suitors, Quincey Morris – the American adventurer, Jack Seward – a doctor working in a lunatic asylum, and Arthur Holmwood, Lucy’s fiancé, are joined by Abraham Van Helsing – a Dutch doctor and famous scientist of those times. Renfield, a patient in Seward’s lunatic asylum proves to be of notable help in unmasking Dracula’s plans. His penchant for “consuming life”, starting with the flies and working his way up to bigger creatures, makes him an unreliable ally at first – what is more intriguing and hard to believe than a madman telling the truth – but his death brings new facts which are taken into account.

I loved this book. I was under the impression that Dracula would be more likable, a monster that should be pitied, maybe envied for his power but he was just pure evil. I guess that’s what happens when you watch the movie before reading the book. His death was anticlimactic but the story leading to that point was more than worth it. The constant fear, the dramatic turns, the threat to life and sanity, these were fascinating to read about and the fact that the book was written in epistolary form gave it a sense of intimacy and also of credibility, as much as a work of fiction can be said to be credible. Reading this book also made me feel a bit homesick. It’s been a while since I’ve visited Transylvania.

Dracula is a work of fiction but history is a part of the story. Here are some interesting facts mentioned in the book that are still valid today:

mamaliga – a porridge made from maize flour, a traditional Romanian food, is still very popular, not only in Transylvania but also in another region of the country called Moldavia. So is slivovitz, “the plum brandy of the country” which is still being made but the name varies depending on the region;
the leiter wagon, a type of wooden wagon used to carry Dracula’s box – my grandfather had one, which he used for carrying hay and sacks of sunflower seeds, with a pair of buffaloes pulling it.
• The clothes of the peasants described in the story reminded me of a photograph I saw of my aunt from more than twenty years ago – “white undergarment with a long double apron, front and back, of colored stuff fitting almost too tight for modesty”. I had to laugh at the “modesty” part, as those clothes would be termed plain old-fashioned these days.
• The names of the places are slightly changed but real nevertheless – Bistritz is Bistrita and river Pruth is the actual Prut. Szgany is a transliteration of the word “gypsy” in Romanian, and Veresti is the name of an actual village.
As for Dracula himself, there is little I can add to the known facts. A Romanian ruler in the 15th century, famous for his ruthlessness with which he defended the country against the Turks, he was and still is, one of the most revered figures in Romanian history.

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Impressions from a literary festival

Bangkok Literary Festival 2013The first Sunday of October I went to Bangkok International Literary Festival – “Reaching the World 2013” at Bangkok Art and Culture Center. The event was organized by The Asia Pacific Writers Organization and was held from 3rd to 6th October. It included an international conference on Creative Writing & Literary Translation: Teaching & Practice, hosted by Chulalongkorn University, and a literary festival in conjunction with Unesco’s “Bangkok World Book Capital City 2013” on the last day, Sunday the 6th.

I only made it to the festival, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and stayed for two of the events. One was called Masters of Invention and the participating authors were (from the brochure): Sunjeev Sahota (On Granta magazine’s 2013 list of “Best of Young British Novelists), internationally acclaimed Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe (From the Land of Green Ghosts), and rising American star Krys Lee in conversation with Rebecca Hart.
The other event was A Writer’s Life. Every Day Creative? with Bernice Chauly, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Cristina Hidalgo, James Shea (poet) and Philip McLaren.
I enjoyed them very much and I took some notes from both events and put them together into a list. From the mouths of the writers, to the paper:

Finding time to write
• I’m stealing time – I go conferences and skip courses so I can stay in my hotel room and write. I also write while having lunch.
• I can’t afford moods, I’m working on four autobiographies at the moment.
• I am a single mother, I wrote my book after 10 p.m., when the children had gone to bed, until 4 in the morning. I did that for two years to finish it.

On the process of writing
• I type my poems on a typewriter to slow down the process then transfer the work on the computer.
• I strip away the whole process of any romanticism and just write.

How do you feel about writing?
• Writing is a pleasure. I write every day. Constructing the sentences, looking at words closely, it’s a very enjoyable process.
• Writing poems gives me pleasure but it’s also the most painful thing that I do.

Where do you get your ideas?
• Real life
• I run every day, I get great ideas while running. Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, was mentioned.
• A friend asked me to write his autobiography. He practically handed me his journals and asked me to write it.

When do you feel your work is ready to be shared with other people?
• I show my work in raw form only to my closest friends. My refined work goes to my other friends.
• Sometimes I post my writing on Facebook to see people’s reaction.

On criticism
• Beginner writers overwrite like crazy. It’s like they have to prove something to the world.
• I sent a story to a publisher once and it came back with “cut by 2/3”. I did that and was grateful for the advice.

On being published
• I sent my manuscript to six publishers. One of them agreed to take it on.
• I was taking writing classes and my teacher showed my work to some people in the publishing industry. I didn’t even know about it until they told me they want to publish it.

Advice for new writers
• Read
• Do selective reading – look at the authors you like, analyze the sentences and their rhythm. Take notes.

On writing a certain amount of words or for a certain amount of time every day
• That helps you become less self-conscious.
• Not everything you write will be great but you may be able to excavate something good out of it in the end.

Dealing with writer’s block
• I’ve never had it. Writing is pleasure.
• Do things that have nothing in common with writing. Exercise.
• I read people who are better than me.

Living off writing
Only one of the six writers at the last event said he writes full time. The others have jobs (full-time or part-time) mainly as professors at university.

The atmosphere was relaxed, there were questions from the audience (I didn’t ask any, I was too nervous) and the authors seemed nice enough for the most part. While many of the things being said were not exactly new, there was one thing that I felt was a little unfair. “Beginner writers overwrite like crazy. It’s like they have to prove something to the world.” That they overwrite might be true, but perhaps this comes from not knowing how much to cut and how much to leave on. Beginners, remember? I bet every writer would love to be able to produce just the right amount of words for their work.

While searching the net for details about Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I found an interesting interview with him from October 2005. Here’s a little excerpt:

“Before I became a writer, I was running a jazz bar in the center of Tokyo, which means that I worked in filthy air all the time late into the night. I was very excited when I started making a living out of my writing, and I decided, “I will live in nothing but an absolutely healthy way.” Getting up at 5 a.m. every morning, doing some work first, then going off running. It was very refreshing for me.”

You can find the interview here.

Have you ever been to a literary festival? A writing workshop? Please share your thoughts.

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Joyland – Stephen King

RIP8main300 Mystery
Dark Fantasy

Words I love to hear year round but even more so during September and October when Carl from stainlesssteeldroppings is hosting a special reading event called
R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril or R.I.P. The participants have to read at least one story or watch a movie that belongs to any of the genres mentioned above. I really enjoyed participating last year with The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert, Bedtime Stories – Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, so I decided to join again this year. The event ends October 31st so there’s still time if you decide to take part.

Joyland -Stephen King The first book on my list is Stephen King’s short novel Joyland, which came out this year.
Devin Jones, the main protagonist, is a college student who takes a summer job at Joyland, an amusement park run by an elderly gentleman, Mr. Easterbrook. It’s 1973 and Devin plans to go to college the following year. His mother is dead and his father lives alone in a big house, mourning his wife’s death.
The summer job turns out to be quite enjoyable. The work is physically demanding and the pay not that great but Devin makes a few friends and begins to like it more and more. It’s also a good distraction from thinking about his girlfriend Wendy all the time.

The people working at the amusement park get along with each other for the most part – Lane Hardy is all smiles and encouragement, Rozzie the fortune teller does have some fortune telling abilities which people don’t take seriously until they come true, and Tom and Erin are just college students like Devin, working summers to save some money towards their education.
That summer Devin meets a little girl whose life he saves, and a little boy whose life he can’t, and both encounters affect him profoundly. Then there’s the Horror House, a place where a few years ago a girl was killed, her body found by the staff, her murder a mystery for years. Some claim to have seen her at the place where she was murdered, her spirit wandering, seeking closure. Devin becomes intrigued by the mystery and with Erin’s help starts putting together the facts in the hope of discovering her killer, a bold move which nearly costs him his life and the lives of the ones he cares about.

First I have to say that murder mysteries are not really my cup of tea, unless it’s Sherlock Holmes doing the investigating, and of course everything has to take place in a Victorian setting. That being said, I love King’s books and so decided not to skip this one. His writing is easy to follow, the story built up nicely, the characters intriguing – I really hoped to see more of Rozzie, or Madame Fortuna – her working name at the amusement park, but she only plays a small role in the story. The little boy in the wheelchair was another interesting addition, and so was his little dog, Milo.

It took me a while to get used to the “carny” lingo – specific words used by the staff at the amusement park, and had to go back once or twice to remember what certain terms meant. What I really enjoyed were the references to other writers or their work: Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Joyce Carol Oates, and I may have missed a few others. And Devin Jones, or Jonesy as some people called him, reminded me of a character in “Dreamcatcher”, another one of King’s books. I treasure these little gems.

If you’re looking for a horror novel, this is not it. Or maybe I have read too many and crave the intensity of not knowing what happens next, that pure adrenaline rush when your body turns cold and the benign shapes in the room become monsters. A murder mystery, definitely, with a bit of supernatural thrown in for an interesting flavor and just a sprinkle of horror. That being said, it was a good story and I had fun getting lost in it for a few days. I look forward to reading “Doctor Sleep”, King’s latest novel and the sequel to “The Shining”, which I have yet to read as well.

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