Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tender is The Book Thief

Last night I fell asleep with a book in my arms. That was a first. I've fallen asleep embracing a person, but never a book and we both woke up this morning feeling kind of awkward about it.

"I, uh, sorry I thought you were a pillow," I said, releasing it.

"It's ok," said the book, smoothing down its pages, as if it were mussed hair. "I've got a meeting to get to, but I'll call you later, ok?"

But before I tell you what led to that and what book it was, I must tell you something about the way I read. Once I've started reading a book I don't like to stop until I'm finished, even if I don't like it. I can only think of a few off the top of my head that I started and absolutely could not bring myself to finish. One was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which was fantastically written, but it was so devoid of soul that I stopped caring about who was getting scalped. Every character in that book was either a killing someone, being killed, or they just stood around with a penis saying "Yup."

The second book that I recently never finished was a book that was so boring, I can't remember the name of it. And you must understand that for me a book doesn't need a plot to be exciting, so it wasn't lack of one that made the book fall asleep in my hands. In fact, the plot appealed to me - a woman going through a divorce goes to join a quilting camp or a guild or something in Hawaii. As a divorced woman who has always wanted to go to Hawaii, I was intrigued. And the idea of quilting seemed romantic, as an art that you can wrap around you and be warmed by. But no! No! Everyone was boring! I didn't connect with a single character! They were all just kind of like, "After you," "No, after you." And no one had a penis. It wasn't a badly written book, I just didn't care what happened to anybody in it.

Which brings us to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. I finished this one, it just took me all summer. I think it was three things that made me finish it, despite the fact that I didn't like any of the characters. One was that I wanted to read a book by him that wasn't The Great Gatsby. I liked that book, and I thought the language was beautiful, and that's why I wanted to see what his other books were like. Two, I've had that book on my shelf for about ten years. After a decade of occasionally looking at the thing and thinking, "Hey, I should read that some time," there was no way I was going to start it and not finish it. And three, the writing was poetically beautiful in parts. Which was its saving grace because the characters could have all scalped each other and I wouldn't have cared. One of the main characters, Dick Diver (please take a while to giggle, because I did every single time I read his name, especially when he was addressed as Dr. Dick Diver) was ok, I mean, he was a depressed alcoholic and I wanted him to get better, but he never did and after a while I just couldn't root for him anymore. And don't even get me started on his wife, or the actress he had an affair with.

That is what I like about F. Scott Fitgerald novels, though. They're so filled with social intrigue, like a gossip column. Every time I would start to get a blah feeling about the story, he would give me a really good line. My favorite was by Dick Diver (tee hee) when he tells his wife that he wants to throw a party. He says, "I want to give a really bad party. I mean it. I want to give a party where there's a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette. You wait and see." That's such a great line! There's even French in it! His other great line is when he's falling in love with the actress and he tells her, "You're the only girl I've seen for a long time that actually did look like something blooming." It strikes me as simple and complicated at the same time, and I love it when dialogue is like that.

But did I like the book? I still don't know. I want to say yes but I also want to say no, which I guess would give it a, "Yeah, I think so." And it took me the entire summer to finish. I started that thing in May and just finished it last week.

Almost immediately after closing that book, I started The Book Thief, which even though it's 200 pages longer than Tender is the Night, I read it in a week. I started it during a trip to the beach last Friday and just finished it last night, and after I reread the last four pages three times, I hugged it and fell asleep with it in my arms. I have fallen asleep with a book, but I have never EVER fallen asleep embracing a book like its a teddy bear or a lover. I connected with every single character, even the ones I didn't like - even Death, who was the narrator. Everyone had a soul, everyone had believable strengths and weaknesses, and the narration was like a song. And you know what that does to me. It was so human, that the book became a living, breathing thing, and when it was done telling its story I had to hold it so we could both cry together.

I have also never reacted this way to a book set in World War Two, and I've read a lot of them. It's about a foster kid in a German town, and the other low-income families on her street. She's not Jewish, but one of my favorite characters in the story is a Jew in hiding. The violent and tragic things that happen in the book don't clobber you over the head. They break your heart but the book feels bad about it. It basically tells you, "Yeah, this guy gets blown to bits. Jesus, I'm sorry about that." That's the tone of Death's character. But it's filled with things that aren't tragic as well. There are beautifully happy things in it. And honestly, even the sad things, shown in its light, are beautiful.

In my opinion. You could read the first ten pages of it and decide to use them as lining for a hamster cage. But just know that if you do that and I come over to your house, I will pounce on the cage, toss out the hamster, grasp the soiled pages and scream, "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" And then I will probably hold them to my chest and rock back and forth. After you call the men in the white coats to fetch me, you might wonder if you should give the book a second chance, and I really hope you do. There aren't any parties in it where people go home with their feelings hurt or women pass out in French bathrooms, but it does look like something that's blooming.

And if you've read it, then you'll understand what I'm about to say. And if you haven't read it just bear with me and then go read it. Rudy Steiner, you are my Jesse Owens.

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