The Book Thief

Time to be a little candid. We’re all readers here, right? We all love books, we all have stayed up much too late one night or another, because we only had a hundred pages left and we couldn’t just give up.

And I would hazard a guess that we all have that one book. The book that left us stunned and shell-shocked and completely destroyed. The book we cried over and loved and read again, and again, and again. The book we have no trouble going up to a stranger for and saying, “This book broke my heart and soul, please, go read it! It will change the way you think.”

IMG_0310

The Book Thief was that book for me.

To be perfectly honest, I did not want to read this book. I saw it many times at thrift stores, in book reviews, in Barnes and Noble, just about everywhere. And I shunned it. Who wants to read a book narrated by Death?

Right?

Wrong.

This book was incredible. The writing was unique and brilliantly thought out, the storyline was engaging and so interesting, and the characters were so vivid that it took my breath away. They were people. Real people. People you would meet in the supermarket, or on the bus, or in a crowded shopping mall. They were real, they were honest, and they broke my poor heart.

The story—narrated by Death, of course—follows Liesal Meminger. Or, the Book Thief. She is a foster child in Nazi Germany, the daughter of a Communist who was taken away by Der Führer. Little Liesal was left behind, and given to another family to raise. A more suitable family.

The Hubbermans.

Death encounters the Book Thief three times. And each time, he is distracted in his work by her. By her strength, her grief, her love. Her story captivated him, and it will captivate you just as strongly, I can promise you that. Her quest for books, her friendship with the boy next door, the secret hiding in her basement that she doesn’t dare share with anyone, for fear of being taken away like her mother, they all combine to create a story that is not like any other I have ever read.

IMG_0330

I still pick up The Book Thief every so often, just to read a few pages, to remind myself how much I loved this book. How real it was. How earth shattering. WWII was one of the most horrendous chapters in world history, and yet, The Book Thief reminds me that—although it isn’t a true story—there were people who were lights among the darkness. People who cared, people who loved. I think it’s always important to remember that, in any story.

Even ours.

***A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR***

I am haunted by humans.

Spiders

pexels-photo-672630

They’re clinging to the walls, hanging from the ceiling. Silken threads thick with dust, with age. Some of them are so fragile they seem to disintegrate when I touch them.

The rest cling to my hands. I feel them brushing against my shoulders, my neck, and I have to close my eyes and remind myself that this tomb has been sealed for centuries. There are no spiders left, none that are alive, anyway. Only webs.

Adam pushes them aside, grinning at me, as if he can see my fear. “Scared?” he asks me.

I laugh at him. Of course I am. I hate spiders, so badly that they make me retch. But this, this is worth a few spiderwebs.

The tomb is small, smaller than I thought it would be. Dust litters the floor, cakes the coffin, the ancient chairs, the tables. The coins. Idols stand against the walls, bowls of food so old that they’re unrecognizable placed in front of them.

And everywhere, on every surface, are spiders. Carvings, engraved into the wood and stone, chiseled into the gold. They’re beautifully done, but I don’t touch them anyway. Whoever is buried here had an unhealthy fascination with the disgusting creatures.

But for the moment, spiders are the last thing on my mind. The wealth that is buried here isn’t sought after for its size, but for its age. Its rarity. Archaeologists  have found three tombs like this. Three, in ten thousand years. He and I discovered this one, and our fortunes are set for the rest of our lives. We could retire right now, die the richest men in the known world.

As if in answer to that thought, the torches go out, snuffed by a breath of wind in a windowless tomb.

Then the spiders come.

Anne of Green Gables

Last Sunday, I did absolutely nothing.

Like, nothing at all.

I lit a fire in my wood stove, made popcorn, and read the whole day.

It. Was. Lovely.

The book I chose was an old one, and probably familiar enough to most of you. I mean, who hasn’t read Anne of Green Gables?

Besides me, obviously.

IMG_0304

Oh, I’d been introduced to Anne before now. The 1985 mini series was my first introduction to her, Avonlea, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, and Gilbert Blythe. (Insert dreamy sigh.) I grew up with Anne, you might say. So it was odd that I’d never picked the book up before now, especially since I’ve been devouring every book I could get my hands on since I was about four years old.

Now, finally having read this amazing book, even I can hardly believe it took me so long. (Yes, I finished it in one day. I told you, I had popcorn. And a fire. Where else did you think I was going to be?)

Anne of Green Gables was one of the most charming, enchanting books I’ve ever had the privilege of reading in my life. Lucy Maud Montgomery gives a vivid picture of life in Avonlea, the fields, woods, orchards, gardens, and of course, Green Gables itself. I could see every bloom, every red dirt road, every cottage, every room. By the time I was finished reading, I felt as well acquainted with Green Gables as I was with my own heart.

And her mastery of the settings in this book was nothing to what she did with her characters.

Anne with an e. I loved her for her frankness, her imagination, and her authenticity when I watched the mini series years ago, and I love her no less now for having read the book. She is funny, charming, endearing, and just enough like myself to make me laugh at my own faults. She appears as a little, thin-faced orphan girl seated at a train station, but she has so much more to her than just the poor waif that no one wants. Her mind is her own, and she is frightfully clever with it. (Sometimes a little too clever?) From the mouse in the pudding to the liniment cake and beyond, I loved Anne, and it was a joy to watch her work her way into the hearts of the people around her, just as she was working her way into mine.

IMG_0305

The story follows her through nearly four years of her life, from the moment she is dropped off at a train station to meet Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (only to find out they had no intention of adopting a little girl when they’d asked for a boy), through her years in school, her dramas, her triumphs, her many, many misadventures, and her long standing grudge against a boy who only ever wanted her to notice him. (Poor Gilbert.)

Anne had a wonderful passion for life, and when she loved, she loved well. May we all find a part of ourselves that recognizes how lovely the world we live in really is.

“Look at that sea, girls—all silver and shadow and visions of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.”

Hands of a Healer

pexels-photo-394376

They come to me as soon as the gates open. The weak, the sick. The afflicted. They come with their sores, with their pain, with their addled children, their confused elders, and I touch them all. One after the other. Their heads, their hands. The words I mutter mean nothing, they are jargon, worthless rhymes that my masters create for me to make it sound convincing. The words mean nothing.

But they are healed anyway.

Healed with my hands, healed with the touch of my fingers, with my breath on their skin, on their wounds. The mothers weep, the fathers pay. Gold flows into my master’s purse, and I know that, tonight at least, he’ll leave me alone. My cell will have bread in it tonight, meat too, since there’s more gold than silver today.

Some days, when there’s more copper than silver and gold is as scarce as a winter’s sun, he leaves me nothing but stale crumbs and a solid beating.

I touch the head of a bent old crone, whisper something that sounds like a blessing, and she straightens up to thank me, her pain relieved. For a moment, anyway. I kiss her forehead, let her weep into my hands, and try not to cry myself. Tomorrow, she’ll curse my name to the heavens. They always do, I know it. But I’m never here to hear it.

I wish I could be. I deserve every curse for what I’m doing to them.

My master looks at me, a frown flickering across his face, and I move on to the next poor soul. The children stare at me, as if I am a ghost or a demon or a god, and I smile at them. I’m not a demon, although I feel like one some nights. Not a magician either, although that’s what people whisper. I am a sideshow, a circus freak, and their healing is for entertainment only. Entertainment and wealth.

It will not last. Although I wish it would.

Seven Years in Tibet

IMG_0297

Let me begin by saying that I love to travel.

I love the excitement of a new destination, the enchantment of a different culture, and the challenges of other languages and lifestyles. I have been to eight different countries (Not including layovers where I never left the airport), and I’ve loved each of them for very different reasons. Cambodia, Scotland, Portugal, they all have their own charms, their own varied cultures, their own histories and myths, people and traditions.

And I love it.

This book took me straight to the heart of Tibet, without the exorbitant price of a plane ticket.

Seven Years in Tibet is the true story of a Austrian prisoner of war during WWII. Heinrich Harrer was a part of a German expedition to the Himalayas when the war began, and he was put into an ‘intermittent’ camp to wait out the war. Not content to stay there, he escaped three times, finally making it over the mountains to Tibet.

And there he stayed. In Lhasa, the capitol city. For seven years.

His account of his time there, the nearly untouched culture of the Tibetan people, and the beauty of ‘the Roof of the World’ as he called it, is one of the most vivid, poignant pictures of Tibetan life in print. The detail that he put into this book, the personal experiences he had with the people, including the young Dalai Lama, his accounts of tradition, religion, and culture combine to make this book an incredible experience. Over and over again while I read this book, I had the feeling that I myself had been to Lhasa, that I’d seen the golden roofs of the Potala, eaten tsampa and drank yak-butter tea, and lived in the shadow of the snowy Himalayas.

IMG_0299

It was glorious. His descriptions of everything, from the way they prepare their food to the layout of the city itself, are minute and detailed. To someone who is more interested in a fast paced thriller than in catching a glimpse of this beautiful country, it might seem a little dull.

I devoured it and found myself wanting more.

Harrer was forced to leave Tibet when the Chinese occupied it in 1950. In the last chapter of his book, he declares, “Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the wild cries of geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight.”

By the time I finished reading Seven Years in Tibet, I was homesick for it too. Someday, maybe I’ll have a chance to visit it too. In person this time.

Rain

pexels-photo-206862

A storm is coming. It’s on the edge of the wind, in the smell of the leaves and the heaviness in the air. The animals already know about it, and even Alexander is restless. He’s only a hedgehog, but he’s never liked the rain. Not when he was little, and maybe less now that he’s old and bad-tempered.

I love rain. I love the whisper it wakes in the trees, the new life it brings to my meadows and ridges, and the smell of it in the mountain air. It rains the most in the spring, after all the snows have melted and the passes are clear. Spring will always be my favorite time of year, even before autumn, with its ripe hazelnuts and hazy, hot sun on ripe grass. It rains in the fall too, of course, but it’s a cold rain, weepy and gloomy and lonely. I like the spring rain best.

But Alexander doesn’t like either. He’s already nosing at my hands, nudging my fingers and nibbling them gently to remind me that he doesn’t like to get wet. It’s time we were home again.

The trees are already whispering when we take the paths home. The wind has risen, and I can hear their voices around me. Muffled, murmuring voices, all of them different, all of them unique. I can hear the oaks down in the valley, with their deep, throaty grumbling, and the high singing of the aspens on the ridge, and the low, murmuring sighs of the willows by the river. I don’t have time to listen to their stories today, not if I want to be under my own roof before the storm hits, but I am tempted. Tempted to pause, tempted to stop and sit beneath the oaks and listen. They tell the best stories. The oldest ones. The aspens have lovely, flowing tales that seem to go on and on forever, but their lives are nearly as short as my own, and they talk only of the wind and the color of the sky. The oaks tell stories of the deep loam, and the roots of the mountains and the wells beneath the stones. When I listen to them, I hear things that I can’t see myself or learn on my own.

They’re waiting for me at the house. I always bar the door when I go out to keep the woodchucks and squirrels out of my stores, and the first of the rain is already falling. My hair is wet. I push the door open, and they all scramble in.

Oliver is the first to hide under the bed. He’s a fox, but I have never held it against him. He hates thunder, and secretly, I think he’s afraid of the rain as well. Two of the squirrels hide in my coat pockets, and Alexander trundles off into the corner behind my spinning wheel.

I sit by the window. I want to see the rain come in, watch it shroud the mountains with mist and listen to the songs it wakes from the trees. My fawn lies down next to me, with her head in my lap. She hasn’t told me her name yet, but she will soon. Once she’s more comfortable here, once she’s sure she can trust me.

For now, we’ll just watch the rain.

Howl’s Moving Castle

IMG_0276

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

Really though, how can you go wrong with a beginning like this?

I love this book. Really. It takes the classic, standard fairytale to new heights, adding twists and turns of its own, and gives a cheeky nod to all the stereotypes in regular fairytales. Magic is an integral part of this story, with witches and wizards at every turn, but rather than the classic ‘witch on a broomstick’ formula, it takes another style. Magic is commonplace. Witches take apprentices and raise bees to use the honey in their spells. Wizards use magic to design clothes and dye their hair. It’s common, it’s everyday, and it’s a refreshing and charming change from stories where the magic is overemphasized and overcomplicated.

I first read this book when I was traveling in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We were living right smack in the middle of the Red Light district, spending our time working with women who had escaped prostitution and playing with kids in places so poverty-stricken that I can still see them in vivid detail when I think of it.

I needed an escape.

I needed something simple and sweet, something with a happy ending and a world that didn’t make my stomach turn.

Howl’s Moving Castle fit that description to the letter. One of my friends handed it off to me, and since I was desperate, I tried it.

Then I read it again, after we’d flown back to Scotland.

And again.

And again.

When I finally got home again, after six months of traveling, I bought it. I had to have it with me. It was one of those books that you meet by chance and fall head-over-heels in love with. The simplicity, the gorgeous settings, beautiful descriptions, charming day-to-day details, and the brilliant (sometimes hilarious) characters stole my heart. When I have a bad day, this is the book I reach for.

IMG_0275

It begins with Sophie. She is, most unfortunately, the eldest of three daughters. Since that inevitably means that she will have no luck whatsoever, and nothing interesting will ever happen to her, she settles herself quite comfortably as an apprentice in a hat shop. Her life is dull, but happy, and she expects to spend the rest of her days there, trimming hats and, oddly enough, talking to them.

But life has a way of catching us off-guard, and Sophie finds that out only too soon.

A disagreement with a powerful (and evil) witch leaves Sophie tottering about, leaning on a stick, stuck as an old lady before her time. With nothing else to do, she sets off to seek her fortune and finds it in the shape of an (apparently) evil wizard who eats hearts, a clumsy wizard’s apprentice, a fire demon, and a castle that has no desire to stay in one spot when there are so many beautiful places to see.

Along the way stars fall, seven-league boots are used, magic is attempted (and sometimes bungled), gardens are grown, flower shops are bought, princes are found, and someone falls in love. (Though I won’t say who.)

All in all, it—and its sequels—are a must read for anyone who still enjoys fairytales or just needs a deep breath from all the drama in the world. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!