November 12th, 2007

Library books

In Which Death Is Not Allowed to Take a Holiday

After loving American Gods, I really had no choice but to read its follow-up/sequel, Anansi Boys.

It's not necessary to read American Gods to appreciate Anansi Boys, as the only common character is Mr. Nancy (Anansi), who appears in the first chapter and promptly dies. You might infer from my wording that Anansi Boys is perhaps a more lighthearted romp than American Gods, and you would be correct. Thus, it's far easier to love, and love it I did, from very early on. Hell, it had me from the title of the first chapter, which is "Which Is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships." I am a sucker for that style of chapter title, as it lends itself to chapter titles like "In Which a Pot of Coffee Comes in Particularly Useful."

Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie Nancy, a relatively normal Londoner with a fiancée named Rosie, who, in the space of a few days, learns not only that his dad has died...but also that he has a brother, Spider. Spider is...not so normal, being much more Son of a God and way into the trickster spirit. He proceeds to wreak havoc on Fat Charlie's calm and stable little life.

I was very pleased and amused that, after having detected a certain Arthur Dentness from Fat Charlie and Ford Prefectness from Spider, I turned to the back cover to find a quote from Susanna Clarke saying that the book "combines the anarchy of Douglas Adams with a Wodehousian generosity of spirit." And it is Adams-y, but it's also quite Gaiman-y. The humor and offbeat style is Adams, but the meat is Gaiman, who weaves in a recurring metaphor about songs and their importance and again plays with folklore. Also, his voice shines through, as he often makes asides to the reader about the story at hand as well as when he's telling us an Anansi story; by positioning himself as the storyteller, he turns the book itself into an Anansi story.

From beginning to end, the book is engaging and fun with characters you both love and love to hate (or just plain hate, depending on your feelings on Spider). It's a testament to the humor and style that I didn't care that for half the book, there really isn't a plot except "Spider fucks with Fat Charlie's life." Gaiman the storyteller, however, foreshadows the development of the real plot that emerges and keeps you itching for more. It's not as mindblowing as American Gods, but it's not trying to be. It's trying to be fun, and it succeeds.

After loving I Am the Messenger, I really had no choice but to read Markus Zusak's other well-known novel, The Book Thief.

The Book Thief, in the words of the narrator:
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
The narrator is Death, and he is unlike any Death I've ever read or seen. This Death doesn't particularly enjoy his "job," taking souls when it's time. He is intensely fascinated by humans. He tries to understand them objectively, but the truth is, he's quite sympathetic. And he takes special interest in the life of Liesel Meminger, the titular book thief, a young German girl who grows up during World War II under the care of foster parents. To Death, Liesel's story—a story about acts of human kindness amidst the horrors of war, about the power of words and storytelling, about, as the blurb says, "the ability of books to feed the soul"—is an attempt to prove to him that "you, and your human existence, are worth it."

And they classify this as Young Adult.

The story is set in the small town of Molching, Germany, and Zusak populates the town with lively characters, making it feel like a tightly knit community. Some of these characters are members of the Nazi party, and most of them go around Heiling Hitler, but they're just people. They're not the ones doing the dirty work. Some of them don't even support the Nazi ideals; they just happen to, you know, live in Germany.

I read The Book Thief as a series of little stories. Each chapter is somewhat self-contained, a small prose piece; this isn't a book with R.L. Stine-style cliffhangers. These little stories add up to form the tale of Liesel Meminger and the important people in her life. Rudy Steiner, her best friend, who idolizes Jesse Owens and constantly asks Liesel for a kiss. Hans Hubermann, her foster father, who understands Liesel and her need for books like no one else. Rosa Hubermann, her foster mother, who shows her love for Liesel by calling her Saumensch (pig). And Max Vandenburg, a Jew Hans takes into hiding, who forms a beautiful bond with Liesel.

Death will often break into these segments to
deliver information he considers notable or
important. Sometimes, I feel like he does it
just to be amusing.

Death is not only occasionally amusing, but he's a fucking poet. He can conjure up images with just a few words, and he can kick you in the stomach with effective paragraphing. You want to savor every word.

The book reminded me of The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in that they're both intensely personal stories set against the backdrop of WWII. It shows how regular people, everyday Germans, were affected. When I finished, I wanted the story to be real. I wanted these characters to have actually lived. I adored Liesel, loved Max, admired Hans.

Predictably, I was perhaps most enchanted by the multilayered narrative, the stories within stories, the larger story and the embedded tales, the meta-device of the narrator speaking to the reader and commenting on the storytelling (at one point, Death totally spoils the ending of the book and then kinda-sorta apologizes but not really because he's not really concerned with that sort of thing). This is a story Death is compelled to tell; he needs to tell us; he needs to understand it. He's only there for our ends, but there's so much that happens before that.

It's a truly unique book, and I highly recommend it. It's the kind of book you want to hug to your chest when you're done with it.

Which is what I did.