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Book Review: ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank March 8, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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I had been eager to read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank ever since I visited 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, the site of the ‘Secret Annex’ where the Franks and their Jewish friends hid from Nazis for two years (between 1942 and 1944).

While I was there, I got to see samples of some of Anne Frank’s original writings (with translations), and was astounded by amazing writing ability of this 13-15 year old girl.  It was so raw, but at the same time managed to capture her deepest thoughts and emotions so eloquently.

I was in awe and proceeded to purchase the ‘Definitive Edition’ of her diary, which contains materials previously unpublished (because of the discussions of sexuality and Anne’s criticisms of her mother) and materials later found.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading it and finished the book last week.  All I can say is that I am not surprised that even after 60 years, Anne’s writings have remained in people’s hearts.  While it is a diary, and as such, features the occasional mundane passage, the writing is exquisite and insightful (especially when it came to relationships and the negative side of human nature), and often touching and heartbreaking.  There were plenty of passages, and especially the last few, that gave me goosebumps as I read them.

Before I read it in full, I wondered what could be so good about a young girl’s diary, even if the circumstances under which it was written were very unusual.  To Anne’s credit, she actually managed to keep it interesting for the most part because she poured her heart into it and didn’t just write for the sake of writing — she knew at some stage that the diary might one day be published, and made sure that each of her entries told the reader something different.

It was also fascinating to watch her grow up on the page, hitting puberty, becoming more mature, falling in and out of love.  To have all the angst, needs and desires of an ordinary teenager — longing for love and freedom (not just physically but also separation from her parents), dreaming of her future and who and what she wanted to become.  And as you read it, you knew in the back of your mind that she’ll never get to realise those dreams.

Actually, having said all that, Anne did realise one of her dreams.  As she wrote on Wednesday, the 5th of April, 1944:

Unless you write yourself, you can’t know how wonderful it is; I always used to bemoan the fact that I couldn’t draw, but now I am overjoyed that at least I can write.  And if I don’t have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself.  But I want to achieve more than that…I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people.  I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met.  I want to go on living even after my death!

5 out of 5

PS: Definitely check out the Anne Frank website.  It’s awesome.

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Anything to avoid writing February 16, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, NBA, Novel, On Writing.
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Only recently have I come to appreciate just how hard it is to be a ‘writer’.

Sure, it’s fun to ramble on and write on this blog with no regard for what is ‘good writing’, but when it comes to the serious stuff (such as my dorment novels or proper articles), I have a real talent for avoiding it.  Make no mistake — I want to write.  That’s why I quit my old profession and began this path.  I have absolutely no doubt about that.  But somehow, I just keep finding new ways to stop myself from getting down to business (as I like to call it).

Perhaps it’s the fear of failure.  Or maybe it’s the fear of getting started (after all, it is extremely daunting).  Or maybe I’m just a lazy bum.

Lately I’ve been coming up with all sorts of excuses for not working on my ‘serious’ writing.  It’s the holidays.  My folks are in town.  I have video games I haven’t played yet.  I need to finish reading books X, Y and Z.  There are movies I need to see, preferably before the Oscars.  I should watch more live basketball on NBA League Pass.  I should learn about the stock market.  The foreign exchange market.  Enter competitions.  The house needs new furniture (which is true).  I should write a blog post about not writing.

One of my many New Year’s resolutions was to read (books) and write (books) an hour a day.  Two-plus months in, and still nothing.  I have been reading more than an hour a day the last few days, but only because it’s Anne Frank’s diary and it’s bloody brilliant.  But writing?  No. Not as such.  Almost makes me wish I could be locked away somewhere like Anne where it’s so boring that there’s nothing to do but write.

Over this break, I’ve sunk to a new low — exercise (the only thing worse is cleaning up the house).  I tell myself it’s to keep fit, but it’s really just another excuse.  And as a result, I’ve been exercising a lot.  More than I ever did than when I had (or could afford) a gym membership.  Maybe it will get me physically prepared for all the gruelling writing sessions ahead…

Shock horror: I didn’t finish reading a book February 7, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Reviews.
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As my friend Xander told me yesterday during our brief catch-up, there is a first time for everything.

I’ve always had this frustrating habit of finishing every novel that I start reading, but for the first time, I have decided to abandon this current novel I am reading and put me out of my misery.

According to this blog, the last book I finished was Homeland by RA Salvatore, and I had completed it by the 20th of December 2010.  Fast forward a month and a half and I’m still stuck on the next book, a Star Wars novel called Heir to the Empire, written by award-winning author Timothy Zahn.  I’m not even halfway through.

A friend was kind enough to lend it to me and I am ashamed to admit that I’ve had it in my possession for 6+ months, or some other ridiculously long period of time.  I wanted to finish it and finish it quickly so I could finally return it and get started on that stack of books still waiting for me in the corner.

It’s not that the book is bad — in fact, it is a bestseller and widely regarded as one of the best Star Wars novels ever written.  I don’t know why, but I’ve simply struggled with it, and struggled badly.  Every time I stop reading it, I don’t get the urge to read it again, and when I do start to read it again, I have trouble remembering what the heck is going on (probably because I take such long breaks in between).

I believe the problem lies with me being only a fringe Star Wars fan.  I was born a little too late to be caught up in the frenzy, and while I have watched all the films, I don’t care for Luke, Leia and Han Solo the way the ‘true’ fanatics do.  I just like the lightsabers.

So all that Empire/Rebel Alliance stuff, the politics, the names I can’t pronounce, the history of everything — the stuff that true fans appreciate — never got me going.  And there was too much of that in the first hundred or so pages.  I have no doubt that the book will get more interesting and action packed, but I just can’t bring myself to get to that point.  I quit.

My wife says I should have done it ages ago.  She compares it to my refusal to stop watching or going to watch potentially bad movies.  She still complains that I wasted 2 hours of her life in taking her to see Buried with Ryan Reynolds.  I actually thought it was okay, but maybe that’s my problem.

Next up, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  I’m loving it already.

Book Review: The Book Thief April 23, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, On Writing.
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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Recently I’ve been envious of a lot of other writers (pretty much after every book I read).  It may be the way they can create vivid images in my mind with apparent ease, or the way they can use dialogue to make their characters come alive effortlessly – or just their success.   Well, add Markus Zusak, the award-winning Australian author of The Book Thief, to that list.

I bought The Book Thief almost a year ago, but it wasn’t until my recent European trip that I actually got around to reading it.  Here’s what I thought of it.

What is it about?

I never like to give away too much plot, so all I will say is that The Book Thief centers around a young girl named Liesel Meminger (who, of course, is the Book Thief), and the story takes place during World War II in Nazi Germany.  Sounds pretty familiar right?  But don’t be tricked by the premise.  The Diary of Anne Frank it is not.  The Book Thief is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual books I have ever read.

What makes it unusual?

For starters, the storyteller of the novel is Death.  Yes, that’s right, Death.  A rather apt choice considering that the story takes place during the Holocaust.  However, despite the grim topic and the grimmer narrator, Zusak manages to convey the story in a (for the most part) lighthearted manner that is brimming with its young protagonist’s curiosity and mischief.  Perhaps it takes away some of that realism and genuine horror, but having the story told by a character supposedly detached from humanity was eerily effective.  Further, the story is told largely from the point of view of the Germans.  In fact, there’s only one main Jewish character in the whole book.

The Book Thief is also a love affair with books – and a examination of the power of words and stories.  Indeed, Zusak alludes to the view that Hitler was able to become who he was because he was a master of words – a master at using words to manipulate people.  He didn’t need to be big and strong or wealthy, and he didn’t need a gun.  He became the most powerful man in the world because he understood the power of words.

So, how was it?

To be honest, it took a while for me to get into The Book Thief.  Not because it was boring (though it was slow in certain parts), but because of the book’s unusual style.  The narrative jumps around a bit, and there’s the occasional poetic extract in bold from the narrator that breaks things up.  Each section of the book also has a tiny summary at the front, comprised primarily of single words, short phrases and things that don’t make much sense until you finish the section.  It was highly unusual.

Furthermore, despite the scope of the events surrounding the characters, The Book Thief is a very personal story.  It is essentially focused on a single town, a single street (which happens to be the street on which the protagonist lives) and on a small handful of characters.

Even when I finally got used to it, for a while I wondered where the story was going and what it was getting at.  Dare I say I even found it difficult to read on, despite the fact that the book was clearly fabulously written.

But I’m glad I did, because gradually, I realized that it wasn’t all just aimless wandering.  Before long, I realized that I actually cared about the characters.  I realized that I was sympathizing with Germans in the Holocaust.  Though their suffering paled in comparison to the Jews, that does not mean they were not victims too.

By the end of the book, I was deeply moved.  At some point (and I don’t know exactly where, except that it was quite late), The Book Thief stops being just an exceptionally written novel – it simply becomes exceptional.  It’s one of those books with the ability to linger in your mind long after the final page.

Overall, I’d say it was a good book that unfortunately didn’t become great until it neared the end.  Perhaps a little too long and a little tedious at times, but there was no doubting how well it was written.  And it does pack an emotional punch at the end.  3.5 out of 5 stars!

Zuzak’s writing style

While the novel has its problems it does not mean the author is not worthy of praise.  I grew increasingly envious of Markus Zusak’s writing ability as the book progressed.  In particular, Zusak has a knack for descriptions (which I consider one of my weakest points as a writer).  In The Book Thief, some of his descriptions are so out of the ordinary and so brilliant that it made me shake my head.  Especially those relating to character traits.  For instance, Liesel’s foster mother is repeated referred to as a ‘cardboard woman’; her foster father has ‘silver eyes’ and her best friend has ‘yellow hair’.  These may seem unremarkable but whenever I saw these references in the book I would instantly recognize the character.  These images are so ingrained in my memory that I can still immediately come up with them off the top of my head despite having finish the book weeks ago.  Some may be unimpressed with his overuse of metaphors (like ‘the sky was the colour of Jews’) or even find his style pretentious, but as an aspiring writer trying to learn the craft, I was intrigued by his confident use of unusual descriptions and imagery.

I also found Zusak to be a great craftsman who is able to shape a story with control and subtlety – he doesn’t rub anything in your face.  He builds it up, gives you the chance to learn the characters.  At the same time he gives you room to think about and interpret the imagery (and there is a lot of that, especially in the short stories and hand-drawn artwork in the book).  Even if you don’t enjoy the book, it doesn’t hurt reading it just to see and learn from the way Zusak writes (regardless of whether you like his style or not).

It doesn’t appear that Zusak was naturally gifted with these skills.  I just read a fascinating interview with the author entitled ‘Why I write’ in which he describes his struggles with writing (see here).  It also has some terrific insights into the craft and process of writing which I found very useful.  Another great article on his personal journey in creating The Book Thief can be found here.  Just shows it’s not easy coming up with an international bestseller.

Maybe there’s still hope for me.

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