It’s absolutely fall-like this morning, a welcome change from the oppressive humidity we experienced this time last week. I love this sense of autumn in the air, and feeling invigorated by the weather. And I love being able to drink my cup of tea while it’s still hot, instead of waiting until it has cooled down to nearly room temperature before taking a sip, for fear of overheating! I’m also enjoying a delicious Date Bar as I think about the book club discussion from yesterday.
My Volunteer book group got together to discuss John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, our Young Adult choice for the year, and yet another book set in WWII. For those who are not familiar with this 2006 book, which was adapted into a film in 2008, here’s a quick summary. Set in 1942, this novel is told from the point of view of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi Commandant who, at the beginning of the novel, is promoted by Hitler to run the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Maria, their maid and housekeeper, is packing Bruno’s clothes and belongings for their move from Berlin, which does not make him very happy. He is less than pleased when they arrive at their new house, located in a desolate area with no other houses nearby and no other children to play with except his twelve-year-old sister Gretel, but that won’t happen because she is “a Hopeless Case”. Being a natural explorer at heart, Bruno discovers a window in his room out of which he is barely tall enough to see. From this window he spies, in the far distance, a fence, and beyond the fence, a whole town of people, men and children, all milling around their small huts, and all wearing matching striped pajamas. He has been forbidden from going near the fence, and he knows in his heart that he shouldn’t disobey this rule, but he can’t help himself and does just that. To his delight, he meets another boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the fence, and they form a strong bond, despite the fact that they can’t actually play together, they can only sit on the ground on either side of the fence and talk. We learn about the events at Bruno’s house and the camp over the next year through Bruno’s rather naive eyes, and are drawn into this world of seeing-and-not-seeing, witnessing-and-not-understanding, offering a different perspective on the WWII experience than we got in The Nightingale, the vague, innocent perspective of a boy who, nonetheless, knows that something is very not-right about it all. Bruno's friendship with Shmuel leads to unexpected consequences and an ending that is sure to resonate with even the most stoic of readers. I was surprised to learn that none of the four book club members who came out to the meeting had read this book or seen the film before. One member didn’t think she was going to enjoy it, thinking, “Oh no, another WWII book!”. But everyone loved, loved, loved this novel. One member said it was “brilliant”, another said it was “deceptively innocent”, and another said the vagueness perfectly reflected the level of understanding a young boy of nine would have of the world of war at that time. We all agreed that Bruno was an engaging and lovable narrator, one with whom we easily formed a sense of closeness. The author did not actually name Auschwitz or Hitler, referring to them instead as “Out-With” and “The Fury”, but of course, we know what he really means. Boyne calls this book “a fable” on the title page, and we talked about what this might mean for the reader's understanding of the book. I thought it was more like a fairytale, with Bruno being the hero of a land far, far away who is tasked with saving the day. None of us anticipated the ending, although we all sensed that there was probably no bright light at the end of this tunnel. We discussed our reaction to the ending , and what other alternative endings Boyne could have chosen. It was a great discussion, and a good book choice, and I would highly recommend it to anyone from ages 12-92.
And I finished reading The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner this morning, my second Man Booker nominee. This novel is set in Stanville Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in California, and is told mostly from the point of view of Romy Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole. She is twenty-nine years old and has a twelve-year-old son, Jackson, who lives with her mother. She hasn’t seen Jackson since he was seven, but thoughts of him are nearly the only thing that keep her going. The novel is told in random flashbacks to her earlier life, from her years growing up, as well as her time working as a stripper and lap-dancer at The Mars Room. We are also privy to the thoughts of other characters: Gordon Hauser, the instructor who comes into the prison to teach Adult Education classes, and Kurt Kennedy, one of Romy’s customers, among others. I didn’t love this book, although it gave me so much information about what it would be like to be in prison (hopefully I’ll never have to learn that first-hand!). I felt that there was really no “story”, that there didn't really seem to be a point or reason for these snippets, and that these stories, offered from both the present and the past, were too random and seemed relatively unconnected. Kushner certainly has talent as a writer, but I never felt connected to any of the characters, their situations or circumstances, and I wasn’t familiar with the many, many places in San Francisco to which she referred regularly, describing beaches and bars and neighbourhoods, etc. - San Francisco was practically a character in the book, but again, not one to which I could relate. I guess it was engaging and well-written enough that I stuck with it, and I really had high hopes that my reading efforts would be rewarded, but I have to admit that when I reached the ending this morning, it was with a sense of disappointment. It was, however, both quite different from (especially the setting and the main character’s circumstances) and very similar to (like the flashbacks to find reasons for the main character’s current circumstances) books I’ve read in the past, so I guess I clung to the similarities and tried to look past the differences. Some of the techniques she used in the novel, like not really naming the main character, and not revealing her crime until the end, didn't really work for me, and actually made it seem like she was trying too hard to make this book interesting. I would neither recommend nor not recommend this book - I’m totally on the fence about it.
That’s all for today. Enjoy the rest of the weekend and keep reading!
Bye for now…