Book Review: The Book Thief

Background Information

Full Title:  The Book Thief

Publisher and Date:  Knopf, 2005

Author:  Markus Zusak Death asked Life

Plot Summary

1939 is not a pleasant time in Germany.  Adolf Hitler is constructing his empire, and death has never been busier.  Liesel Meminger becomes very acquainted with death, who will steal many things from her over the course of her life. Liesel is a Jewish child living under foster care just outside the limits of Munich, Germany. She acquires a habit for book thievery after her foster father teaches her to read.  While living in foster care, Liesel meets many people who shape her life, including a Jewish refugee and a boy with hair the color of lemons, who becomes her best friend as well as partner in crime.

Thoughts on Style

This book is narrated from the perspective of death, a very fitting story deliverer given the time period.  Having read many reviews on this book, it has become clear to me that readers either love or hate this style.  Personally, I loved it. Death is authentically artistic, and his commentary rings with truth.  Death makes himself very present throughout the book, and his narration adds a certain aspect of reality to the entire story.  Death does not attempt to moderate the horror as it is happening, but merely tells it with a touch and humor that makes it almost bearable.

Another fascinating aspect of this book can be found in Zusak’s wondrous discussion of words.  Liesel’s foster father teaches her to read and afterwards she  begins to steal books. She also reads the books written by Max, the Jew who stays in the home of her foster parents.  Max’s books show her how Hitler used words to start his takeover causing  Liesel to question whether words are good or bad.  As more and more horrible events begin to unfold for Liesel, she comes to the conclusion that without words, none of this would have happened.  Leisel struggles with this idea throughout the book, and finally comes to peace with words, believing that they in and of themselves are incredibly powerful, and it is how we use them that determines whether they are good or bad.  Liesel writes her own story near the end of the book, and death later collects it.  The final sentence of Liesel’s writing is, as we are told by death: “I have hated words and I have loved them, and in the end I hope I have made them right.”

Worldview 

The worldview of death is one of the most fascinating I have come across in my literary travels. Death claims to take the soul of someone once they die, but does not say where he takes these souls.  He does, however, describe the variable types of souls he meets and how willing they are to come with him.

Death views humanity in a very fair and unbiased manner, a view that is tragically rare in both literature and the outside world today. Death particularly comments on how beautiful humanity is, yet how ugly at the same time. This fact confounds him, and his final words to the reader are that he is “haunted by humans.”

Age Appropriate/ Content

The topic of this book is the second World War, and there is no attempt made on Death’s part to tone down the violence.  There are a fair amount of deaths within this book, and while they are not described in a large amount of detail,  there are a fair amount of them.  Many loved characters are killed, and there are also beatings, whippings, fist fights, and a suicide.  The book’s intensity and poignancy  may make it a less pleasurable read for younger children.

cursing is quite common throughout the book, mostly in German,  S–t, however, is used in English, as well as numerous religious exclamations, such as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  Otherwise, swearing is quite frequent, but in German.

Age Recommendation  13+(This is based mainly on the intensity level of the book; some children may be able to handle this book at an earlier age.)

Final Thoughts    

This book was amazing.  The writing was beautiful, and the story was handled by the perfect narrator for it.

A strong statement on humanity’s self destructive force, the power of words, and how we deal with tragedy, the Book Thief is a highly informative and incredibly powerful book, which will leave the reader thinking long after the last page.

Final Rating 4.6  of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

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Quote to Consider: The balance of emotion (Challenger Deep)

“You know the darkness beyond despair, just as intimately as you know the soaring heights. Because in this and all universes, there is balance. You can’t have the one without facing the other. And sometimes you think you can take it because the joy is worth the despair, and sometimes you know you can’t take it and how did you ever think you could?”

-Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep

Book Review: Challenger Deep

Background Information

Full Title:  Challenger Deep

Publisher and year:  Harper Collins, 2015

Author :  Neal Shusterman 

Plot Summary 

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student, whose behavior is beginning to concern his friends and family.  His previously wondrous artistry is becoming more and more abstract and wandering, and his grades are beginning to slip.  

Caden’s world inwardly begins to split, between two worlds.  One side of him is still rooted in reality, but a reality in which  he thinks everyone around him is plotting how to best destroy him. The second version of Caden’s world exists merely in his mind, where he is on board a ship headed for Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the ocean, located somewhere inside the Marianas Trench.  

In reality, Caden pretends to join a track team, but instead spends his days wandering for miles, haunted by the thoughts inside his head.  

On board the ship, Caden begins to be split between the captain and his parrot.  The captain offers him riches and power, while the parrot offers him something the captain never can: freedom.  

Caden’s world begins to  fall apart, as he must choose between the promise of power and safety, and the allure of the mutiny that means his freedom.

Thoughts on Style   

The book has a dual narrative.  Much of the story is narrated directly from Caden, describing what is happening to him in first person.  Alternately, Caden describes himself in second person.  Since Caden is mentally ill, these narratives make sense. Caden’s adventures at sea are paralleled to his real experiences.  Shusterman does this in stunning fashion and also has a rare gift with words, leaving the reader both enchanted and haunted.

Worldview

Because Caden has mental health problems, his worldview is somewhat skewed. In the hospital, he generally does not trust or listen to those in authority over him.  At one point, once he has healed, he reveals that he stopped taking his medication.  The doctor in charge of him tells him this was a wise choice, although, at the time, a disobedient one. The kids in the hospital generally have little respect for authority.

On the ship, Caden has a little more respect for the captain than he does for his doctors, but doesn’t follow even the captain’s instructions much of the time. Caden is much more respectful to his fellow patients/crewmates, than he is to those in authority.  Indeed, the reader begins to see that Caden can help his fellow patients much better than the doctors over him can.

Age Appropriate/ Content

There is no major language in this book, but ass is used numerous times.  Also, rape and suicide (both attempted and successful) are discussed.

Other than this, the book is rather intense.  After all, the author is describing the very mind of someone who is mentally ill. Caden uses images that may disturb younger readers,e.g., a worm devouring him from the inside out.

Overall, I don’t think this book would really trouble a reader of any age who would have the will to read a book discussing this particular subject.

Age Recommendation:  14+

Final Thoughts

I really loved this book, and I guess I say that about lot of books.  This one really stood out for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, Shusterman’s very unique use of words and his ability to communicate his ideas powerfully.  And secondly, Shustman’s powerful parallels between Caden’s voyage and his real experiences.  This became more and more clear as the book went on.  Overall, I was really struck by this book, and would certainly recommend it.

Overall Rating:  4.6 Stars 

Harry Potter Vs. the Bible: Can Christians read Harry Potter? Pt.3

Read part one of this post here, or read part two here.

Biblical Themes in Harry Potter(cont.)

Spoilers lie ahead

Revealed in the seventh Harry Potter book, but present throughout the entire series, is an idea Jesus introduces during the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 6:24a Jesus says:

“No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.”

This idea is very real, especially throughout the seventh book.  During the seventh book many things are revealed about Dumbledore’s past, and one of these things is that Dumbledore had a sister who died under his care.  We learn that she died mainly from Dumbledore’s neglect and carelessness and that this neglect stemmed from the fact that Dumbledore was so avidly searching for the Deathly Hallows.  Dumbledore was attempting to serve both his sister and his greed, and his greed won out, with disastrous consequences.

The other key, and even stronger, example of this principle can be found in Severus Snape, the villain that everyone who has read Harry Potter has a serious love/hate relationship with.  (I, personally fall more on the love end, but that post is for another time.)  At the end of the seventh book, Harry enters Snape’s memory, and discovers that Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, Lily Evans, all throughout his life, even when he served Voldermort. When Voldermort decided to kill the Potter family, Snape’s two masters conflicted.  Snape implored Voldermort not to attack Lily’s household, but Voldermort did not listen.  Snape then turned to Dumbledore.   This is another excellent showing of a servant attempting to serve two masters. Snape is most certainly one of the best characters in Harry Potter, and, in my mind, the entire landscape of literature.

Dumbledore also has a number of quotes that sound reminiscent of Christian ideas.  At the end of the second book, Harry discovers he can speak in Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  This is a talent normally held by dark wizards, and by Voldermort himself. Harry begins to question if having this talent makes him evil.  Dumbledore responds:

 

“It is our choices, [Harry] that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

This is certainly a Biblical principle.  At the end of the fourth book, Dumbledore gives a speech to the students informing them of Voldermort’s return.  He tells them that in the coming days they must decide between what is right and what is easy rather than the oft used, what is wrong. This is much reminiscent of of what Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14:

“Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to eternal life, and only a few find it.”

Dumbledore also quotes several Bible verses on the graves of loved ones.  On the grave of his mother and sister he writes, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  This is a direct quotation of Matthew 6:21(the Sermon on the Mount.)  When Hermione and Harry see this grave in the book, little is made of this phrase, but Rowling says that Harry does not understand its meaning.  Another Biblical quotation can be found on the tomb of Harry’s parents.  The inscription reads: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Once again a Biblical quotation, this time from 1 Corinthians 15:26.

There are numerous other Biblical themes in Harry Potter, things such as Harry observing Luna spreading special herbs on the grave of Dobby the house elf three days after Dobby’s death (much like the women who came to put spice in the tomb of Jesus), but I have discussed some of the most significant.

Conclusion

So, can Christians read Harry Potter?  Most definitely. Interestingly enough, J.K. Rowling revealed after the release of the final book that the books were written from a Christian viewpoint, but that she kept this a secret so as not to give away the series’ ending.  Although there is some debate as to how religious Rowling is, these books are just as good Christian allegories as the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings, although it does take more time and thought to reveal the allegories in Harry Potter.

The Harry Potter books are also one of the greatest literary works of all time.  As already mentioned, J.K. Rowling studied classical literature at Harvard, and this certainly shines through in her excellent books.  The genius of Rowling can be seen in   everything from themes and writing style to the names chosen for her characters.(Which I may write a post on at a later date.)

One important attribute that Rowling would appear to have inherited from classical literature is the idea of the characters making the plot, rather than the plot making the characters.  In many classical works, we are introduced to the characters first, and the story is slowly shaped around them, rather than the idea that has become popular today, of throwing characters directly into the thick of the plot, and allowing that plot to reveal the the character to us. Allowing the characters to shape the plot requires much more work and thought, as well as much more developed characters.

And Rowling  has amazing, very real , excellently developed characters.  All of Rowling’s characters make choices that are very real; and you feel that the only thing keeping you from these characters is an inch of paper and the words that fill the gap.  While Rowling may not stay as completely true to this method of characters over story, she certainly opts much more toward it than the converse method of plot over characters.

Harry Potter is  an amazing story, with, as aforementioned, many Christian themes.  J.K. Rowling has created one of the most  creative, imaginative world in all of literature.  I would put the Harry Potter legacy only second to that of the Bible, and believe that it will be forever regarded as one of the great classics.  These books are amazingly written, great allegories for the Christian faith, and show many truths about humanity that are so true we have lost sight of them.  Humanity speaks its best and most profound truths through its literature, and the Harry Potter books are some of the best literature available.  Not only can Christians read Harry Potter, but they should.

 

Quote to leave you wondering (or wandering)

“I still can’t figure out if it’s bravery or cowardice to take your own life. I can’t figure out if it’s being selfish, or selfless. Is it the ultimate act of letting go of oneself, or a cheap act of self-possession? People say a failed attempt is a cry for help. I guess that’s true if the person meant it to be unsuccessful. But then, I guess most failed attempts aren’t entirely sincere, because let’s face it, if you want to off yourself, there are plenty of ways to make sure it works.     

     Still, if you’ve got to bring yourself within inches of your life just to cry for help, something’s wrong somewhere. Either you weren’t yelling loudly enough to being with, or the people around you are deaf, dumb, and blind. Which makes me think it isn’t a cry for help-it’s more a cry to be taken seriously. A cry that says “I’m hurting so badly, the world must, for once, come to a grinding halt for me.”
     The question is, what do you do next? the world stops, and looks at you lying there with your wounds bandaged, or your stomach pumped, and says, “Okay, you have my attention.” Most people don’t know what to do with that moment if they get it. Which makes it definitely not worth the cost of getting there.”

Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep

Harry Potter Vs. the Bible: Can Christians read Harry Potter? Pt. 2

Read part one of this post here.

Christian themes in Harry Potter 

(WARNING:  SPOILERS LIE AHEAD)

 

Throughout Harry Potter, there are dozens of themes that could be considered Christian.  A good begining to this subject would be to discuss the resurrection themes within Harry Potter.  One form of magic used in the series is a kind of atoning sacrifice.  We are told that by an ancient form of magic, if one individual sacrifices themselves for another, that fellow human,(or humans) will be spared.  This magic is first used in the very first book.  When the wicked Lord Voldermort comes to kill Harry, Harry’s mother dies for him, and when Voldermort attempts to destroy Harry the curse rebounds, banishing Voldermort to a spirit form for many years.

This magic is also used in the final book.  Harry sacrifices himself(for many reasons,) and when he dies he finds himself in an imaginary King’s Cross Station with Dumbledore.  Dumbledore tells Harry that he can go back, and that he must return to fully defeat Voldermort.  When Harry does go back, he finds that Voldermort does not have the power to kill his friends because Harry has died for them.

Also in the seventh book, the Deathly Hallows are introduced.  The first is a wand that wins any battle, the second an invisibility cloak that never wears out and cannot be revealed by any spell, and the third is a stone that can bring back the dead.  This stone would be a resurrection symbol on its own, but to bring someone back, you turn it three times. Although it may not have been purposeful on Rowling’s part, this is a fascinating parallel to the fact that Jesus was in the grave three days. Dumbledore tells Harry in the aforementioned King’s Cross Station scene, that he attempted to posses these items, but could not. He then tells Harry that the true owner of the Deathly Hallows is Harry himself, because he would not pursue them in an attempt to control death.  Dumbledore tells Harry that he, Harry, is the true master of death because he did not fear death, much like Christ.

Another symbol of resurrection exists in Dumbledore’s pet bird, Fawkes, a phoenix, who is reborn each time he dies.  Harry hears Fawkes singing after Dumbledore dies.

And when Harry fights Voldermort at the end of the fourth book, he causes those Voldermort has killed to come out of Voldermort’s wand, in a kind of ghost-form, similar to the form of those who come from the resurrection stone, another nod to a resurrection.

(Part three coming next week!)

Harry Potter vs. the Bible: Can Christians read Harry Potter? Pt. 1

Much has been made over the Harry Potter series, the magic within it, and how it should be handled by Christians.  Is Harry Potter harmful to the Christian soul? Does Harry Potter paint the occult in too friendly a way?  Can anything valuable for the Christian be found in Harry Potter? Many Christians believe that the Harry Potter series is directly against the Bible, but there is a strong argument to be made that the books actually endorse more Christian messages than they contest.  So, are the messages in Harry Potter so evil that they outweigh the worth in reading it and the Biblical messages throughout it?

Of course, there would be no conversation here at all if the Bible did not have some very strong thoughts on this subject, so let’s start by discussing those. Sorcery and magic are directly forbidden in the Bible many times. Deuteronomy 18:10-12a says:

“Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.  Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.”  

These practices are forbidden at numerous other times as well (Ezk. 13:18-23, Lev. 19:27 and Lev. 20:27) and the Bible speaks of those who practice sorcery being destroyed by the Lord’s wrath (Mic 5:12 and Is.  47:12-15.) In Revelation 9:21 and 22:15, those who practice magic arts are mentioned in the same breath as the sexually immoral,  murderers, thieves, and idolaters, as well as “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

The Bible, then, very clearly condemns the use of the magic arts.  But the Bible never condemns the reading of materials that discuss the magic arts.  Indeed, if we were to refrain from the reading of all materials that mention the use of magic, we would have to ban even the Bible, because outside of directly forbidding these activities, the Bible also discusses numerous individuals who practiced them.  The most famous of these is, of course, Simon the Sorcerer who Philip meets in Samaria.  This story is found in Acts 8:9-13:

“Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria.  He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.’  They all followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic.  But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.  Simon himself believed and was baptized.  And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.”

 Outside of this being a direct instance of magic used in the Bible,  we can also glean another interesting piece of information from these verses. Simon was astonished by the miracles Philip was performing through the name of Jesus.  Simon was probably working his magic through the power of the devil, but he immediately recognized a greater power and followed it in awe.

There are also several other mentions of individuals practicing magic in the Bible.  In Acts 16:16, Paul commands a demon who is assisting a girl in the practice of divination to leave her. When Moses visits Pharaoh and causes his staff to transform into a snake, Pharaoh counters by calling in the magicians and sorcerers of Egypt, who did the same by their “secret arts.”(Ex. 7: 11).  Pharaoh also calls upon these men when Moses strikes Egypt with the first few plagues.  It is interesting to note, that although these magicians are able to copy Moses in his turning of water into blood and in causing frogs to pollute Egypt, they fail to fill the land with gnats, and they finally admit that Moses is working through the hand of God (Ex. 8:19). We once again see that God is more powerful than anything man or the devil can do.

In 1 Kings 9: 22, the wicked queen Jezebel practices witchcraft. Likewise in Samuel 28, Saul uses necromancy to summon Samuel at the end of his reign, even though he worked very hard at the beginning of his reign to rid Israel of such a vile practice.

Now, it is true that the magic in Harry Potter is much more compelling than in the Bible, but there are many, many books that we read that discuss magic in this way, including The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, which are both looked at as very strong Christian allegories.  So what makes Harry Potter more dangerous than these books?

There are several reasons why the Harry Potter series  could be considered dangerous.  The first is that in Harry Potter the magic is very explicitly depicted and explained, and the central plot revolves around magic.  The second reason is that in Harry Potter, the line between the good and evil magic is not very clear.  The good characters at times use spells considered black magic, unlike in many other series, such as Charlie Bone.

The final reason lies in how well Harry Potter is written.  J.K. Rowling is an amazing author, and she naturally makes you feel a part of the world she is in.   The danger in this is that those reading the book may feel so involved in the story that they want in a very real way to experience it, which can lead readers down the wrong path.

The other side of this argument, however, is that just like all fantasy literature, the magic in the Harry Potter books is merely fantasy, and can be regarded completely as fiction, just as it can in the Chronicles of Narnia or Charlie Bone.

 There are also many themes in Harry Potter that are very reminiscent of Christianity. J.K. Rowling’s degree, (at Harvard University) was in classical literature, and in her books the themes of classical literature shine through, those themes often finding root in Biblical truths.

(Keep an eye out for part two!)

Quote of interest: Words

“Words!  Mere Words!  How terrible they were!  How clear, and vivid, and cruel!  One could not escape from them.  And yet what a subtle magic there was in them!  They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet  as that of viol or of lute.  Mere words!  Was there anything as real as words?”

 

-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray