Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review of Things We Couldn’t Say by Diet Eman with James Schaap

Usually when I finish a non-fiction book, I’m a little awed.  This makes sense if you think about it, because nobody is going to take the time to write a story about something boring.  Writers pick the interesting and amazing stuff, the suspenseful and scary stuff.  It may even be heroic and humbling.  Diet Eman’s stories of the German occupied Netherlands during WWII are all that and more.  In Things We Couldn’t Say, she tells of her life as a young woman in the Nazi occupied Netherlands and how she and her fiancĂ©e, Hein Sietsma, and their friends worked to hide Jews with the Dutch underground resistance. 

Things We Couldn't Say   -     
        By: Diet Eman, James Schaap

Eman is a resident of Grand Rapids, which makes her my neighbor.  She is not a professional writer and this definitely comes through in the book.  She’s also not a native English speaker and I often felt like the book may have been better served if she had written it in Dutch and had it professionally translated.  BUT, I also have to admit, that these same facts also added to the realization that she is a real person and these are her real stories.  The rawness of the writing helped the rawness of the story come through. 

The story begins in 1938 when Eman meets Sietsma.  When the occupation begins and her Jewish co-worker needs a place to hide, she and Sietsma help him out of The Hague and into the country to a safe house.  With this, they begin their resistance work.  Throughout the course of the war, both will undergo numerous name changes and will have to change residences multiple times, doing different jobs for the resistance along the way.  Both will be imprisoned.  They will be separated almost the entire time, their story told through letters, journal entries and first person narrative by Eman.  At the end of the war, Eman learns Sietsma died in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. 

[Normally this is where I start my “ratings”, but it feels disrespectful to trivialize Eman’s life experience with my silly little rating system.  However, I use the rating structure to shape my thoughts while I’m building the review, so I am going to include those thoughts here anyway.]

Tears Shed Factor –I cannot imagine living through what Eman and her countrymen lived through--what any occupied people lived through during the war years.  This book is about the horrors of war and the heartbreak that comes with that.  It’s also a book about love—Eman and Sietsma’s love, and also mankind’s love for each other.  It’s about doing the right thing when it’s most needed.  And as a reader, you will feel that love and hurt and heartbreak all over when you read this book. 

Distraction Factor – Eman’s stories will haunt you for a long time.  As I read, I would reflect on stressful or frightening times in my own life and then I’d realize that they were nothing compared to what Eman and her countrymen faced.  I cannot imagine life under those circumstances and yet she makes it clear that faith and love saw her through those tough times and it inspired me to know how someone can suffer so much and keep going.  It’s a story of resilience and triumph as much as it is about hardship and pain. 

Enrichment Factor –We all know the basics about WWII, but aside from knowing that it happened, I’ve never read anything like Eman’s stories of the Dutch resistance and the underground movement to hide Jews, it’s a personal first hand account of the front lines of a very important part of history. 

Writing Skills Factor – Like many memoir authors, Diet Eman is not really a writer.  Nor is she a native English speaker, so at times the writing style, word choice or organization is distracting.  Some of my book club members had a very hard time with the journal entries and prayers scattered throughout, finding them distracting as well. 

Bad Ass Babe Factor – 15—I have never before given a book character higher than a 10 in this category, and I sincerely I hope no one finds this rating factor offensive for this particular book, because I mean it in the highest respect.  Diet Eman is a true heroine, not only for her wartime deeds, but also for re-living them and writing them down for the world to share. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As readers, we all know that a well written, entertaining, thought provoking book is a true treasure.  To find one that you can share with your kids is a gift.  I first heard Neil Gaiman’s name last summer, when an acquaintance of mine, a former librarian, recommended his books, including The Graveyard Book.  My List-Of-Books-To-Read has achieved record lengths recently… and this one was on The List, but it took a second encounter to push it to the top.  A member of my Sci-Fi Book club suggested we read it, because it won the Hugo award in 2009.  It is also the only book ever to win both the Newberry (US) and Carnegie (UK) medals.   So, in other words…lots of people think this book is amazing.
The Graveyard Book - Hardcover
The story begins with a murder.  “The man Jack,” as he is called, murders a man, woman and child in their sleep, but their toddler escapes from his crib and out the front door.  He wanders down the street to the nearby graveyard.  The ghost residents hear the pleading cries of the recently murdered family, who beg them to help their baby.   Mrs. Owens, dead some 200+ years, and her husband promise to take care of the baby and become his parents.  The mysterious Silas, who is neither dead nor alive, but has the ability to leave the graveyard, unlike the ghosts, agrees to be his guardian and provide things like clothes and food that the ghosts cannot get for him.  They name the boy Nobody Owens, “Bod” for short. 

From this point, we watch Bod grow up and learn life lessons from ghosts and ghouls, werewolves, witches and the undead.  Some of the lessons are simple ones about learning to listen to the people who love and care about you, when they warn you about something dangerous---and others are more complex, like lessons about learning to do the right thing, about helping and caring for others.  It’s almost as if each chapter has a different coming of age story for each stage of Bod’s life.  I found it particularly charming that many of the views of morality, community, tolerance, justice and common sense decency are taught by these otherworldly creatures that in most stories are depicted as evil. 

Even though this is technically a kid’s book, I never felt as though the story or writing were dumbed down or cleaned up for children.  If anything, Gaiman offers splendid learning opportunities within the story---beautiful images that an adult can fully appreciate and enjoy, like “he walked up the side of the hill, to where a picnic some thirty years before had left its mark in the shape of a large apple tree.”  I grinned when I read that passage, but my kids didn’t get it right away.  This book is filled with places like this, where I could stop and ask my kids what they thought, how they felt, if they understood, etc. 

Ratings  (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)

Crack Factor – 9.5.  I read this book twice.  It’s not the first book I’ve read twice, nor will it be the last, but it’s the only book that I have read twice within a two week time frame.  It was even better the second time.  A definite crack book. 

Tears Shed Factor – 9.5.  I also think this is in some ways a love story, not in the romantic sense, but in the filial and platonic sense, definitely.  As Bod grows and learns, he learns about love from his parents, guardian and friends and it tugged at my heartstrings in more than one place.  This book has it all—you’ll laugh, cry, triumph and tremble along with Bod and his friends.  Gaiman’s gift is to help the reader feel the story as he reads it. 

Enrichment Factor – 9.5.  Multiple pearls of wisdom adorn the pages of The Graveyard Book.  One of my favorites is when Bod is asking his guardian about the difference between the sacred ground of the graveyard and the unconsecrated ground beyond it.  Silas explains how different beliefs hold different things sacred.  He also makes it clear that most of the people buried outside the bounds of the sacred ground are most likely no worse than those within.  In this small passage, they touch on the idea of judgment and how it can be unfair and how rules and laws change from time to time.  Like this passage, there is so much discussion material throughout this book---not only topics I can bring up with my kids but also reminders for the grownup in me that sometimes forgets. 

PeopleFactor – 9.5. I’m a true character lover.  Gaiman’s characters don’t disappoint.  I felt invested in their lives and despite a perfect ending to the story, I had a hard time saying goodbye to them.

Story Telling Factor – 9.5.  One of the things I loved about this book is that each chapter is a separate adventure in Bod’s life—a complete story, set within the larger novel, and all along you get clues to the mystery of why bod’s family were killed.  It makes for a quick read—definite page turning action within each smaller story, and propulsion to keep going to know the whole picture.

Writing Skills Factor – 9.9.  This book is beautifully written.  I found our copy of the book dog eared with parts I found memorable, picturesque, and moving. 

Total Rating: 9.57

End Note:  I hate to write things like “If you like the Harry Potter books, you’ll love this book.” But I’m still going to write it.  While this one book is quite different from the world of Harry Potter, I put them in the same league for many reasons.  The writing quality of both is excellent, and while reading the graveyard book, I felt the same reactions as when I read the Harry Potter books—a kind of excitement, joy, fear, protectiveness.  They not only thrilled the kid in me, but they stirred the parent emotions in me, too.  The reader in me loved every minute in the graveyard, same as at Hogwarts, so I bet Potter fans will also like Bod. 

One More End Note---Neil Gaiman's website is cool.  He writes a journal on it--almost like a blog.  It's worth checking out. http://www.neilgaiman.com/