The Bookish Baboon

Cover of "The Book Thief"

While I feature the books I’m currently reading in the right margin of this blog, I don’t often comment on them. But as I have book club tonight, I’m in the spirit to do so.

First off, I was never one to join a book club before. My to-read list has always been infinite, and to have someone else choose what I read and dictate the time I read it within always seemed too constrictive. Why I joined this one, however, was a no-brainer: it’s a group of my friends who I’d want to hang out with anyway and who share my love of wine and low-key attitude. There’s no sense of penalty if you haven’t read more than 5 pages of the book, there’s no set list of questions we must answer, and the time-frame has been pretty wide open—so far, a couple months, which leaves me enough time to read something else of my own choosing in between.

Tonight is only our second meeting, and the book is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I am lazy, so allow me to just copy the notes I already jotted in my book journal:

Liked it. Took a while to get into it (one-third of the way through), largely because of language and structure/style—its very unique descriptive and figurative language is striking, but perhaps would prefer such in a short story vs. novel-length. Unexpected similes for sake of originality sometimes barred actual envisioning (e.g., “Her wrinkles were like slander.”), which opposes the aim of that literary device. A lot of characters introduced right away, too, so took time to feel acquainted with main ones, but ultimately did connect and sympathize. Interesting perspective of non-Jewish German suffering, and I did appreciate the dehumanizing effect achieved by repeatedly describing people as inanimate objects and inanimate objects as living beings (anthropomorphism)—e.g., “There were shocked pyjamas and torn faces.”

Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 stars. In the end, I was moved.

Our first book choice, on the other hand, was sheer disaster. It came highly recommended as a bestseller, and I have zero idea why. Here’s what I had to say in my little journal about Victoria Hislop’s The Island:

Boo! Premise was interesting (history of the leper colony on Greek island of Spinalonga), but story was poorly written and developed. Over-described, redundant, simplistic, 2D characterization, ridiculous head-hopping (three times in one paragraph at one point!), and spent too much time away from present-day story-line to give a crap about its main character. Secondary plot surrounding sister in the past story thread was absurd (her affair was drawn out too long to believe in its continued passion, and the way it comes to an end is very unoriginal melodrama). Climax was too abrupt with little resolution of interest. Nothing of literary merit to discuss.

Overall, I gave it 2 out of 5 stars per Goodread’s rubric (“It was okay”). I’m tempted to change that to a 1 because I hate it more with every recollection, if not for the fact that I did find the history interesting. A shame it couldn’t have been conveyed more powerfully.

And to round this out as a literary trifecta, the book I just completed out of non-book-club-related pleasure was The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I just dropped 5 out of 5 stars on that baby despite understandable limitations as cited by other readers. One Goodreads reviewer says, “The Night Circus will be a 5-star book for a certain reader. This reader likes a lot of descriptions, doesn’t mind a very slow story and has a soft spot for circuses. I am not that reader.” Fair enough. It all the more reinforces how there’s a reader out there for every book (plenty of folks just loooved The Island, after all), so those of us who write and aspire to have readers of our books one day need to keep the faith.

Because—with the exception of the “soft spot for circuses,” as they generally creep me out—I am that reader described above. I hated the amount of description in The Island because it was redundant; I loved the amount of description in The Night Circus because, for me, it was immersive. Yes, plot was rather thin, I expected there to be more action-oriented warring of the magician’s magic, and even at the end I didn’t grasp the point of the whole magic competition and why its stakes had to be so high. But this book in itself had a magical quality that made it an exception for me; the whimsical, decadent, candlelit, and velvety descriptions are abundant but so lovely. More so than a story, the book was an experience, a stroll through the black and white tents of a circus echoing the surreal artistry of Cirque du Soleil. For that reason alone, it’s a 5 for me, and I’m seriously contemplating reading it again from the start as I already miss the warmth, illumination, and caramel scent to be had inside those tent flaps.


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

7 responses to “The Bookish Baboon

  • Glen

    I’ve never fancied the idea of a book club. something about a bunch of readers sitting about discussing a book they’re reading just does not grab me.

    Also, I’ve never felt it likely that there would be any hot ladies in a book club… discuss… ;-p

  • Milo James Fowler

    One of my students reviewed The Book Thief, and it sounded pretty good. And yep, circuses are creepfests, mos def! Yet I can’t get enough — there’s just something about that ethereal, “surreal artistry of Cirque du Soleil”…

    • thefallenmonkey

      “Creepfests,” *hee*. My primary circus issue is clowns. I hate the clowns. Luckily, this circus didn’t have them. Just sheer whimsy and magic; the book has an amazing aesthetic running all throughout. Did your student like Book Thief, then? My friend who chose it for our club used to teach it, and she said it would go over well with the kiddos. The characters are very likable (even the ones you think you might hate at first), and I think that’s what made it most endearing to me. A very lovely testament to the power of words as well.

  • jaggystar

    I loved ‘The Book Thief’, one of my favourite books. The young guy who wrote the book actually went to my High School in the outer suburbs of Sydney! I didn’t know him, but my younger brother knows him well.

    I love the way the book is narrated by a compassionate Death who gently carries souls away – an image I found comforting. What is remarkable about thr book is the way the themes of human cruelty and human kindness are woven throughout and the way the history of Nazi Germany is able to be accessed, reminding us that we must never allow such suffering to be part of our world. Don’t you think? I avoid the war genre, but we did this one at book club. Don’t you find book club can push you out of your comfort zone? I liked the similes – refreshing. Wish I could write like that. Zusak shows us how the power of words and books gives us life, shape meaning, effect our lives and even our identity – hence ‘The Book Thief’. Words can be enriching for beauty and love and also for cruelty through propaganda. Of course, the redemptive power of words and books triumphs! So cool …

    Everyone in my book club gave the book four and a half stars! I was moved to tears.

    Water for Elephants is a circus book I liked. The circus is fascinating, as a lifestyle and place to run away too, when you stop and think about it.

    Thanks for your blogging!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank YOU in turn, jaggystar, for such a thoughtful comment! I really enjoyed reading your insights, the perfect supplement to our group’s discussion last night. The compassionate quality of Death came up among us, too – the way Death so carefully took the souls and so thoughtfully contemplated the human race. It seemed in great awe of people, overall finding great beauty and perseverance in them despite tragic flaws. Death’s perspectives on war were so interesting as well, making it clear it wasn’t Death causing the casualties but bombs and humans, that Death didn’t particularly enjoy having such a massive workload. We were all also big fans of Rudy – what a doll! The scene when he places the teddy bear on the dying pilot was such a moving moment. And I do agree with you on the similes; while there were those few that I found distracting, the language of this book is the most original I’ve read in some time. It’s so concise yet effective, packing a lot of punch in few words (one quotation I highlighted capturing the spirit of such is: “His voice was close to noiseless, but his eyes were louder than ever.”). I am very humbled by Zusak’s talent. How amazing that your brother knows him!

      And as you noted, the book’s message on the impact of words is so powerful. I loved Liesel’s reflection on the book she writes: “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

      Thanks for the rec on Water for Elephants. I’ve seen the film but heard the book is much better, as is so often the case. My book club ended up picking Night Circus last night after I raved about it, though I wonder if we’ll have enough to sink our teeth into with that one. I warned them that it was more about aesthetics than story development for me, so we’ll see how it goes. 🙂 I’m interested to know what other books your club has read – we can always use more recommendations!


  • jaggystar

    It is amazing my brother knows him and we went to the same school! The school is a very average, if not below average school, often having me feeling forever inferior in my education and ability to string a sentence together. Yet, someone went to the same school as I and wrote the most amazing book! Incredible.

    I wanted to invite him to Book Club. Wouldn’t that have been a spin out! I think he is probably in America these days.

    Off the top of my head, our bookclub loved the ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’. Name is a mouthful. It is also set in war time and is a good follow on from ‘The Book Thief’. I liked the romance in it, I must confess. Here’s part of a review I found from Barnes & Noble:

    “Drawn together by their love of books and affection for each other, the unforgettable characters collectively tell a moving tale of endurance and friendship. Through the chorus of voices they have created, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have composed a rich tale that celebrates the power of hope and human connection in the shadows of war”.

    The author died before she finished her manuscript – I think her neice completed the book for her …

    Haven’t seen the movie Water for Elephants yet – I’d like too.

    Best wishes!

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