The Book Thief

Liesel Meminger is not quite ten years old when everything in her life changes. In only a few days, her brother dies, her mother leaves her, and she is sent to live with two strangers who ask that she call them “Mama” and “Papa.” Even at such a young age, she knows that nothing will ever be the same. What she doesn’t realize, however, is how true this is not only for her, but for everyone. Her foster parents, her friends, and all of her neighbors are each facing their own struggles to survive in Nazi Germany.

Liesel grows to love her foster parents, particularly her father, Hans Hubermann, who stays up with her when she cannot sleep and teaches her how to read. Liesel stole her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, the day of her brother’s burial, and it is from this book that she first learns to read. Once she starts, she never wants to stop: Liesel becomes obsessed with acquiring more books, more words. Aiding her in this quest is Rudy Steiner, her best friend, and Max Vandenburg, the Jewish fist fighter whom the family hides in their basement. She also finds an unexpected ally in the mayor’s wife, a strange, sad woman who offers her access to a beautiful library full of books. But Liesel’s happiness is constantly threatened by the war, which brings with it the danger of bombings and, in the case of Max, discovery. Is it possible to make it through a war unscathed?

The Book Thief is a memorable book—and not only because it is narrated by Death. It is a vivid rendering of Germany during the Holocaust, capturing both the ugliness and the beauty of the time. Indeed perhaps the most remarkable quality of the book may be how unexpectedly beautiful it is: though marked by violence, hatred, and countless tragedies, it also highlights those acts of kindness, defiance, and uncommon bravery that make the characters more than victims of their circumstances. Liesel is a winsome protagonist—you can tell even Death admires her—and her strong will and warm heart make her the perfect character around whom to base the various events in the book. She is young enough to have a childlike innocence, yet shrewd enough to gain a gradual understanding of the horrors around her. She is also spirited enough to combat the injustice she witnesses in any way she can. Though essentially powerless, she is always ready to put up a fight.

The other main characters—and they are considerable—are equally well-developed, and the memory of each is quietly devastating even long after the book is over. Even those who fare well in the end endure almost unbelievable hardship, making their stories upsetting to recall. And, of course, many do not survive. Although this is a fact that Death hints at very early on, it still comes as a terrible shock, for the reader desperately wishes that it were untrue. These are characters who, through their amusing antics, heartwarming goodness, and surprising depth, endeared themselves to their reading audience. Their loss is felt not only in the narrative but on a personal level.

In the end, this is precisely how The Book Thief feels: personal. It is a novel based on the experiences of author Markus Zusak’s parents, and it reads like a story that has been told again and again, in many different versions. There is a familiarity, and thus an authenticity, that makes this book special. To look back on it is to conjure not plot points but vivid memories. The Book Thief is interesting, insightful, and even educational. More than that, however, it is a haunting look at the power of words and the ways they express our humanity.

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What I Saw and How I Lied

Evie Spooner is a typical 15-year-old girl who loves her stepfather and idolizes her mother. She lives in Queens, just a subway ride away from Manhattan, and she dreams of the day when she will be as beautiful, glamorous, and grown-up as her mother, Beverly. Although life was not easy for her and her mother when she was growing up (Evie’s father left before she was born), everything has improved since Beverly married Joe Spooner. Now that Joe has returned home from World War II, the family has been living well off of Joe’s profitable appliance business.

The Joe that has returned from the war, however, is not entirely the same man who left. He is both more successful and more secretive, though Evie is too young to recognize the change. One night, after a mysterious phone call, he abruptly decides to take the family on a trip to Palm Beach. They leave the very next day, even though Evie is set to start school soon.

In Palm Beach, Evie meets Peter Coleridge, a young man so handsome he could be a movie star. She is immediately smitten. It turns out that Peter and Joe were part of the same company after the war; though Evie initially thinks this means they are friends, she soon recognizes the tension in their relationship. Still, Evie cannot resist Peter’s good looks and charm. The more she falls for him, the less obedient she is to her parents. But, having fallen so hard, can she see Peter for who he really is?

A terrible accident leaves Evie stunned and struggling to make sense of everything. She realizes that the people she trusts may not be so trustworthy, and that she must determine where her loyalties lie. Has she been blinded by love—both for her parents and for Peter? More importantly, will she lie to protect those she loves the most?

What I Saw and How I Lied aims for a cool, teen noir feel, and—for the most part—it succeeds. It has all the elements of any good noir: an endless maze of lies and deceit, encounters cloaked in a haze of cigarette smoke, and, of course, a gorgeous blonde femme fatale. Yet it also turns some tropes upside down. The femme fatale is not some anonymous, heartless woman, but Evie’s own mother. The streets aren’t just slicked with a persistent, gloomy rain, but washed away by a hurricane. And Evie herself, of course, is not some hardboiled detective, or even a knowing adult, but just a 15-year-old girl anxious to grow up but with no idea how to do it.

While the book is never quite as exciting or daring as it might be, and only occasionally hints at more stylized language (at one point Evie watches glances slide off her “like ugly was Vaseline, and I was coated with it”), it still manages to feel refreshingly different, even innovative. Transferring the noir elements to a teen story is a neat idea, and it actually dovetails nicely with the themes of first love and family loyalty that Evie is dealing with just like any other teenage girl. While it might not impress diehard fans of noir, it should entice teen readers looking for a dark, stylish mystery. It’s certainly rich with atmosphere, and engrossing enough to leave the reader wanting more.

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Eleven-year-old Roger lives in a dangerous Chicago neighborhood where gangs rule the streets and violence permeates daily life. He has had a good upbringing, and comes from a close-knit family, but he knows that other kids aren’t so lucky. One of his classmates, a boy called “Yummy” after his love of sweets, is one such kid: with no real family to call his own, Yummy looks to impress the older boys who make up a local gang. Yummy has a tough exterior, and a criminal record, but he also loves his teddy bear. He bullies the other kids (including Roger) and steals their lunch money, but at times he’s just like any other young boy, playing with frogs and having sleepovers.

When Yummy commits an awful crime—the accidental shooting of a bright, sweet fourteen-year-old girl—Roger tries to piece together what led the boy down such a dark path. He thinks of Yummy’s mother, a drug addict and prostitute, who has been in and out of jail herself, and of Yummy’s grandmother, who cares for the boy, but has plenty of other grandchildren to worry about. He tries to understand if Yummy is at heart a good kid or a bad one; ultimately, he finds that Yummy, like anyone, has both good and bad in him.

The tragic end to the story is no surprise to anyone familiar with the real-life events that inspired it. Yummy, in a panic, goes on the run; he is wanted by both the police and the gang he had hoped to impress. Eventually, of course, he is found, and his last days come to their inevitable, but no less shocking, conclusion. Yummy, like the life of the boy it is based on, is brief but powerful; it is a beautifully-illustrated graphic novel that lingers in the mind. Sophisticated and sensitively written, it offers no easy answers, but plenty of thought-provoking questions.

Feed

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Titus is a typical teenage boy who enjoys hanging out with friends, going to parties, and spending spring break on the moon. He is also (along with the rest of society) constantly wired in, having had a “feed” implanted into his brain since birth. The feed does everything: it is source of entertainment and information, and even monitors biological processes. In short, the feed is a given, something that is rarely considered, but just is; that is, at least, until the day a strange man at one of the moon’s nightclubs hacks into Titus’s and his friends’ feeds, forcing them to be shut down to prevent contamination.

After a few agonizingly boring days in the hospital, the group recovers, and  everything seems back to normal. Titus begins to pursue a relationship with a girl, Violet, whom he met on the moon. Violet is not like other girls, which is initially what draws him to her. She uses big words and isn’t obsessed with trends; in short, she likes to think for herself, which is rare for anyone in Titus’s world. Violet’s feed was also hacked at the nightclub, but what Titus doesn’t know is that it was irreparably damaged. Her upbringing wasn’t as privileged as his, so she didn’t get a feed until her brain was already mostly developed: as a result, her feed was not as securely implanted. This feed is ultimately her undoing.

Violet begins to fall apart, while Titus watches helplessly. Various body parts become paralyzed for hours at a time. Her desperate entreaties for help are rejected on the basis that her consumer profile is too unpredictable. Titus’s friends are no help, as they feel only annoyed at Violet’s behavior. Titus alone is concerned, but he, too, is easily distracted by the comforts and diversions that the feed offers in the place of actual human contact. Can he rebel against it, or will he sink only deeper into it?

This book is not about the plot as much as it is about the world these characters are living in, and what everyone is allowing to happen. Violet’s tragic decline is hardly the only negative result of the feed, but most people are too stupid, or, at least, too complacent, to care. The feed has reduced its users to mindless consumers whose every desire can be met instantaneously. As a result, any problem with the feed can be smoothed over with the offer of an immediate solution. It doesn’t even matter how ridiculous this solution is: Has your feed been causing you to develop gruesome lesions on your skin? Good news! The teens on “Oh? Wow! Thing!” have just turned those lesions into a fashion statement. Collect them all!

Although Feed is classified as YA, it appears to play more into the fears of those of us who remember a time without Facebook and smart phones. Younger teens might even be taken with the idea of making all of their devices an inextricable part of them. After all, we’re all so wired in already. Superficially, of course, the feed seems very convenient: it knows what we like and gives helpful suggestions for our next purchases; it allows us to communicate with others individually instead of out loud, and even lets us share memories; it connects us to any resource we need, so that we all can access information that makes us look like geniuses. Still, the feed has a dark side, the extent of which even the novel cannot fully fathom.

Most of its darkness is only hinted at, which makes the story that much more realistic and unnerving. There are no tidy answers to resolve every thread of the novel: Feed is messy, provocative, and deeply disturbing. Although it often plays as a dark satire, it is a pitch-black one, equal parts funny and sad. At the end, readers will not feel hopeful and renewed, but very, very worried. Still, Feed is a great book for anyone who chooses to approach the future cautiously. It is smart, thought-provoking, and impossibly clever. Better yet, it offers an experience even more immersive than watching the latest episode of “Oh? Wow! Thing!” on the feed.

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