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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Moved by Books (and Clouds)

Yesterday and today (Wednesday, Thursday) the clouds have been magnificent. Cumulus mountain chains and towers have captured everyone’s attention. This was the sky scene over Lake Michigan on Wednesday evening, when a storm seemed to be approaching…then hovering over us…then—it passed us by. The grass is very dry. How do the field crops fare without irrigation? So far they are still looking good.

Here’s a book question: Is fiction manipulative? If you answer in the affirmative, who or what is the manipulator? In the past week I have finished two novels, each one unlike any other I’ve read and the two (as follows logically) completely different, one from the other. Both moved me deeply. In both cases--and this, I would say, is the general mark of a successful novel--the impression I had was not of reading some writer’s “made-up story” (as one of my early bookstore customers called fiction, words that have haunted me for 15 years) but of being allowed into the most intimate lives and thoughts of real people. Well, in one case, a real dog. Really. --It feels strange even to write of these two books together in a single posting, but there you have it: in the bookseller’s life, as in the politician’s, bedfellows may be strangely paired.

Last week I read THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak, and promised to write about it soon. I finished it one morning and was asked in the evening to rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. After a few moments’ reflection, my answer was “At least nine and a half.” Next question was, what other book would you rate between 9 and 10? (My questioner wanted a baseline on which to judge my ratings.) Thinking it wouldn’t be fair to name an established classic, I told her THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, by Michael Chabon, was definitely a 10 in my book.

The eponymous book thief, Liesel Meminger, is a young girl, 9 years old at the beginning of the story, quickly given over to foster parents by her mother. Her brother was to go with her to the new home but died on the train. We do not learn until much later what has become of her father. The couple who take her in, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, have two children of their own, grown now. They are simple people, Hans a housepainter, Rosa a cleaning woman, but there is more to them than first appears on the surface. Other characters are Rudy, a playmate, and Max Vandenburg, a Jew in hiding. The year is 1939, and all the events take place in Nazi Germany. The characters, however, are unique individuals, people--not stock characters--we have never encountered them before.

Did I forget to mention that the story is narrated by Death? “You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat or faraway guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it at least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I’m too busy as it is. ‘Your time will come,’ I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times I wish I could say something like, ‘Don’t you see I’ve already got enough on my plate?’ but I never do. I complain internally as I go about my work, and some years the bodies and souls don’t add up; they multiply.” Read this book but once, and you will never forget it as long as you live.

Garth Stein’s THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is a very different kind of story, a novel set in Seattle, in our own time, and narrated by the family dog. How far from personified Death can one get? The family dog is brimming with Life! Sound too precious? Well, the book reviewer at Car & Driver magazine didn’t find it so, and neither did I, despite the occasional “woo-woo” passage (“woo-woo” being our household term for New Age-type, beyond-the-grave communications and such, and I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone).

The narrator dog, Enzo, exposed early in life to television, has absorbed many lessons on the subject of auto racing (his owner’s passion), but he also watches and reflects the weather channel, history programs and other broadcasts, all of which give him much food for thought over a lifetime. He reads human beings—no surprise there. The surprise is that he yearns to be one in his next life. As a friend of mine said last year, of a very different book, “It shouldn’t work, but it does!” This one definitely does.

Here’s a passage from the beginning of Chapter 26, one that won’t give away anything of the story but gives a good idea of Enzo’s voice: “I love very few things more than a nice long walk in the drizzle of Seattle. I don’t care for the heaviness of real rain; I like the misting, the feeling of the tiny droplets on my muzzle and eyelashes. The freshness of the air, which has been suddenly infused with ozone and negative ions. [I’m sure he got this vocabulary from the Weather channel!] While rain is heavy and can suppress the scents, a light shower actually amplifies smells; it releases the molecules, brings odor to life, and then carries it through the air to my nose. Which is why I love Seattle more than any other place, even Thunderhill Raceway Park.”

So strange to read these two very different books back to back, as it were. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is a “simpler” book than THE BOOK THIEF--more “accessible,” I suppose one would have to say. The backgrounds of the two stories (Munich; Seattle) are very far apart, and I would feel on safer ground recommending the former, as the latter challenges on a cultural and historical level, not merely emotional and aesthetic. But actually, death plays a major role in both books, as does human striving for the right. Passion and poetry each have a place in these stories. Will either book change your life? It may change the way you see yourself and others in the world around you. Liesel is ambivalent about words and often retreats into silence; Enzo longs to be able to speak, frustrated that his communications are limited to gesture. But both of them are watchers, and both reach out with love.

I read THE BOOK THIEF in an almost paralyzed stillness. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN had me laughing and crying. Both touched and moved me deeply. In neither case, however, did I feel like a puppet dancing on the author’s strings, having my feelings elicited on demand. Rather, it was the reality, the humanity, the truth in these books that moved me. The authors of these novels did not dress up the world but laid it bare.


Anonymous said...

The best books - or the ones I like at any rate - always seem to me to have "authenticity." The feeling evoked is genuine, or there is an extraordinary fidelity to place or time or character - the story is true at its root, even when it's fiction. A book that manipulates the reader can work on a superficial level, but ultimately it fails to satisfy. (That doesn't mean I never read such books - I eat potato chips, too!)

Sometimes I return to a book and find that it's not as good as I'd remembered. I suspect that's the result of my accumulating life experience ...

P. J. Grath said...

I've been musing on LITTLE WOMEN, which is so formulaic--each sister speaks in turn--but which works nonetheless. I suspect that book of manipulating me, but I cannot find it in myself to resist! The characters somehow manage to live. Think so?