The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Title:  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Author:  John Boyne

Paperback:  215 pages

ISBN:  9780552773805

Book Challenges:  War Through the Generations World War II Reading Challenge

‘I’m Shmuel,’ said the little boy.

Bruno scrunched up his face, not sure that he had heard the little boy right.  ‘What did you say your name was?’ he asked.

‘Shmuel,’ said the little boy as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  ‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Bruno,’ said Bruno.

‘I’ve never heard of that name,’ said Shmuel.

‘And I’ve never heard of your name,’ said Bruno.  ‘Shmuel.’  He thought about it.  ‘Shmuel,’ he repeated.  ‘I like the way it sounds when I say it.  Shmuel.  It sounds like the wind blowing.’

‘Bruno,’ said Shmuel, nodding his head happily.  ‘Yes, I think I like your name too.  It sounds like someone who’s rubbing their arms to keep warm…  I’m nine,’ he said.  ‘My birthday is April the fifteenth nineteen thirty-four.’

Bruno’s eyes opened wide and his mouth made the shape of an O.  ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said… ‘my birthday is april the fifteenth too.  And I was born in nineteen thirty-four.  We were born on the same day… We’re like twins,’ said Bruno.

-The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, pages 109-110

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne is a story of friendship told through the eyes of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a concentration camp Commandant.  Uprooted from friends and the only home he’s ever known, Bruno hates his new home in “Out-With,” his mispronunciation of Auschwitz, and makes sure everyone knows it.  But one day, when he goes out exploring the area around his house, he meets a boy his own age on the other side of the fence where everyone wears striped pyjamas all day.  The two quickly become friends, and meet as often as possible at the same time and spot everyday from then on.

One of the things I like about this book is Boyne’s layered subtleties.  Bruno, the naive and sheltered innocent, passes along clues of his mother’s infidelity, drinking and depression, as well as the competition that goes on between Gretel, his twelve-turning-thirteen year-old sister, and his mother for the attention of the young Lieutenant Koltor.  Bruno witnesses but can’t quite grasp the difference between him and his family and the people on the other side of the fence, asking different people about it with varying degrees of failure to get a satisfactory answer.  His father tells him the others aren’t people -not really, not in the way we think of.  The Lieutenant calls them a derogatory name that is never passed along in the book.  Gretel comes the closest to answering him, failing only because she herself doesn’t understand it, either, telling him that the people on the other side were Jews and they were The Opposite, and The Opposite hate the Jews.

There are a few things that just got under my skin with this book, however.  For instance, if these people are German, then I assume they speak German in their thoughts as well as conversations with one another.  I found it mildly irritating that Bruno would think “Auschwitz” would sound like “Aus mit” (the direct translation “Out-with”).  Or that he would hear “Der Führer” and think people were calling Hitler “Das Wut”.  Also, there are a lot of repetition in the book.  Okay, I get it… Father’s office is “Out of bounds at all times with no exceptions.”  I got that the first time.  And I caught it on page 1 that Bruno had some stuff that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.  Another thing I really wish Boyne had added to the book was how Bruno and Shmuel would have spent their birthday.  No doubt Bruno would have had a party with cake and a big dinner, but how would he have shared the special day with his “twin”?

Boyne’s storytelling in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is reminiscent of Scout’s recounting in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, though not as well-done nor is Bruno as developed as a character as Scout was.  In Boyne’s attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible, the story is a bit like thin gruel.  Everyone can digest it, but it hasn’t got very much flavor.  If you are looking for a good book that glimpses the lives of the people during Nazi Germany, I’d recommend The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  The writing is magical, the storytelling point-of-view is unique, and the depth of even the tertiary characters are better than Bruno’s.

Still, I’m passing this book on to my kids.  I think it’s a good book to introduce young and reluctant readers to the subjects:  The Holocaust, racism, hate, friendship, loyalty, love.  I think 4th and 5th graders, particularly boys of that age, would enjoy this book the most.  For me, a mom with a children the same ages as Bruno and Gretel (not to mention the same relationship as the bickering siblings, as well), I found Bruno to be an exasperatingly annoying little whiner at times. 

I give The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne 3 out of 5 stars.  It’s an acceptable read, but for me, as forgettable as Bruno found his three best friends for life.   In a year, I doubt I’ll even remember their names.

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In 2008, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was made into a movie.  I’ll have to put it on the top of my Netflix Queue, it looks fairly good.  Maybe they’ll address the birthday issue for me in it.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Title:  Haunted

Author:  Chuck Palahniuk

Paperback:  412 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Vintage

ISBN:  9780099497172

Looking back, it was Mr. Whittier’s stand that we’re always right.

“It’s not a matter of right and wrong,” Mr. Whittier would say.

Really, there is no wrong.  Not in our own minds.  Our own Reality.

…In your own mind, you are always right.  Every action you take – what you do or say or how you choose to appear – is automatically right the moment you act.

…We’re all condemned to be right.  About everything we can consider.

In this shifting, liquid world where everyone is right and any idea is right the moment you act on it, Mr. Whitier would say, the only sure thing is what you promise.

“Three months, you promised,” Mr. Whittier says through the steam of his coffe.

It’s then something happens, but not much.

In that next look, you feel your asshole get tight.  Your fingers fly to cover your mouth.

Miss America is holding a knife in one hand.  With her other hand, she grips the knot of Mr. Whittier’s necktie, pulling his face up toward her own.  Mr. Whittier’s coffee, dropped, spilled steaming-hot on the floor.  His hands hang, shaking, swirling the dusty air at ech side.

Saint Gut-Free’s silver bag of instant crepe Suzette drops, spilled out on the cornflower-blue carpet, the sticky red cherries and reconstituted whipped cream.

And the cat runs over for a taste.

Her eyes almost touching Mr. Whittier’s, Miss America says, “So I’m right if I kill you?”

-Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, pages 60-61

Hauntedby Chuck Palahniuk is the stories and poems within a bigger story that is the shadow of the truth.  It is the camera behind the camera behind the camera, as is often said in the book.  It’s the story of a collection of strangers who have all answered an ad about a writer’s retreat, but find it’s a lot more than they bargained for.  Mr. Whittier, the operator of the “retreat” tells them that they’ve promised to write and, for the  next three months, he intends to hold them to that promise.  However, there is an unfortunate hiccup in the plan when Whittier dies from a busted gut after eating the equivalent of 10 freeze-dried turkey dinners.  Now the strangers are on their own, locked in an abandoned hotel/theater, each with their own guilt and story to haunt them.

From a psychological/sociological point of view, this book is fascinating.  It’s  a bit like Lord of the Fliesin that it is the witness of the de-evolution of society.  How depraved can people get?  How little humanity will be left at the end of the three month period?  When food runs out (because they’ve all sabotaged the supplies) what will they eat?  That they are all there as writers and artists, what will they do with this time they are given?

It is a dark look into the human soul.  The Missing Link states that it is how we treat the animals around us that shows our humanity… the cat disappears shortly after he says this.  Director Denial makes a statement again and again that people turn each other into objects, then turn objects into people.  Points are made that humans have  a low threshhold of tolerance to boredom, that we seek out a villain to blame all our troubles on, and that we thrive on chaos, drama and disaster.  There’s no joy like the joy found in another’s suffering.  That all this drama and difficulty is to prepare us for our final act, our own death.

While these are the concepts that drew me to this book, I found the book itself a bit on the boring side.  I kept falling asleep… though, that may have been because I couldn’t nibble while reading due to the nauseatingly disgusting content.  Haunted has more canabalism in it that the Donner Party was ever accused of.  The graphic descriptions of the toilets backing up, the cooking of a baby, and decomposition were enough to make me gag. 

This is only my second Palahniuk book, Rant being my first, and I’m aware he can be a bit disgusting and warped.  One review I read said that Hauntedwas for the true Palahniuk fans.  I’ve got a few more of his books on Mt. TBR, but I think I’m going to wait for a while before reading another by him… let my stomach settle.  It’s definitely NOT for the faint of heart.

Even though it was gut-churningly gross, the intellectual appeal was enough to keep me reading on.  I give Hauntedby Chuck Palahniuk 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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One of my favorite parts of my Border’s newsletters is the shortlist.  When Palahniuk’s book Snuff came out, the following video was his shortlist offering.  I think it was this vid that made me want to read more Palahniuk (as well as pick up Clown Girl)

The Book Thief companion post

I decided to make a second post for The Book Thief, as my review was taking on an extended life of it’s own and would have eventually grown beyond 3000 words.  Since a lot of what is in this post isn’t a review of the book itself, I thought it best to put the following in a companion post.

Other thoughts about and quotes from The Book Thief:

Last week’s “Booking Through Thursday” question had to do with books made into movies, including the question “What book would you NOT want to be made into a movie?”  At the time, I really didn’t have an answer for that question, but NOW I do.

I don’t ever want to see The Book Thief made into a movie.  One of the major points of beauty with this book is the writing itself.  Zusak’s poetic and illustrative narrative cannot POSSIBLY be translated to the screen.  It is the word pictures and imaginative imagery that make The Book Thief so special, and I believe that when this book is presented in an acted-out format it will simply become just another sad, hard-knock-life, World-War-Two story like so many others that line the video store’s shelves.

Sadly, it is already optioned and in the pre-production stage with a tentative release date of 2010.  *sighs and cries*   Honestly, tell me how the following passage can be “re-formatted” for the big screen:

     …For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to.  Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.

The voices suddenly all sounded the same.
     Robert Holtzapfel collapsed to his right, onto the cold and steamy ground.
     I’m sure he expected to meet me there and then.
He didn’t.
     Unfortunately for the young German, I did not take him that afternoon.  I stepped over him with the other poor souls in my arms and made my way back to the Russians.
     Back and forth, I travelled.
Disassembled men.
     It was no ski-trip, I can tell you.

     As Michael told his mother, it was three very long days later that I finally came for the soldier who left his feet behind in Stalingrad.  I showed up very much invited at the temporary hospital and flinched at the smell.
     A man with a bandaged hand was telling the mute, shock-faced soldier that he would survive.  “You’ll soon be going home,” he assured him.
     Yes, home, I thought.  For good.
     “I’ll wait for you,” he continued.  “I was going back at the end of the week, but I’ll wait.”
     In the middle of his brother’s next sentence, I gathered up the soul of Robert Holtzapfel.
     Usually, I need to exert myself, to look through the ceiling when I’m inside, but I was lucky in that particular building.  A small section of the roof had been destroyed and I could see straight up.  A metre away, Michael Holtzapfel was still talking.  I tried to ignore him by watching the hole above me.  The sky was white but deteriorating fast.  As always, it was becoming an enormous dust sheet.  Blood was bleeding through, and in patches, the clouds were dirty, like footprints in melting snow.
     Footprints? you ask.
Well, I wonder whose those could be.

     In Frau Holtzapfel’s kitchen, Liesel read.  The pages waded by unheard, and for me, when the Russian scenery fades in my eyes, the snow refuses to stop falling from the ceiling.  The kettle is covered, as is the table.  The humans, too, are wearing patches of snow, on their heads and shoulders.
     The brother shivers.
The woman weeps.
     And the girl goes on reading, for that’s why she’s there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.

 -The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, pages 475-477

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When Nazi soldiers march some Jewish prisoners back to the work camp in Dachau, the “parade” makes its way through Molching.   The following quote describes this event:

On Munich Street, they watched.
     … They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalogue of colours.  That wasn’t how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that’s exactly what they were, for many of them would die.  They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke, and their souls trailing behind.

     When they arrived in full, the noise of their feet throbbed amongst the road.  Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls.  And the dirt.  The dirt was moulded to them.  Their legs staggered as they were pushed by soldiers’ hands – a few wayward steps of forced running before the slow return to a malnourished walk.
     … The suffering faces of depleted men and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help – they were beyond that – but for an explanation.  Just something to subdue this confusion.
     Their feet could barely rise above the ground.
Stars of David were plastered to their shirts, and misery was attached to them as if assigned. “Don’t forget your misery…” In some cases, it grew on them like a vine.
     At their side, the soldiers also made their way past, ordering them to hurry up and to stop moaning.  Some of those soldiers were only boys themselves.  They had the Fuhrer in their eyes.
     … Liesel was certain that these were the poorest souls alive…  Their gaunt faces were stretched with torture.  Hunger ate them as they continued forward, some of them watching the ground to avoid the people on the side of the road.  Some looked appealingly at those who had come to observe their humiliation, this prelude to their deaths.  Others pleaded for someone, anyone, to step forward and catch them in their arms.
     No-one did.
Whether they watched this parade with pride, temerity or shame, nobody came forward to interrupt it.  Not yet.
     Once in a while, a man or woman – no, they were not men and women, they were Jews – would find Liesel’s face amongst the crowd.  They would meet her with their defeat, and the book thief could only watch them back in a long, incurable moment before they were gone again.  She could only hope they could read the depth of sorrow in her face, to recognise that it was true, and not fleeting.
     … She understood that she was utterly worthless to these people.  They could not be saved, and in a few minutes, she would see what would happen to those who might try to help them.

In a small gap in the procession, there was a man, older than the others.
     He wore a beard and torn clothes.
His eyes were the colour of agony, and weightless as he was, he was too heavy for his legs to carry.

-The book Thief by Markus Zusak, pages 398-400

I particularly love the line, “His eyes were the colour of agony,” and hate to see that lost when it’s on screen. 

One line in the previous quote that I find particularly chilling is, “Some of those soldiers were only boys themselves.  They had the Fuhrer in their eyes.” 

We often consider Hitler’s greatest evil being the systematic devastation of an entire people group.  Certainly, his “final solution” that brought about the deaths of approximately 6 million Jews, what is more commonly referred to as The Holocaust, was an unimaginably horribly wicked thing.  However, not to sound dismissive, those six million people are dead and gone.  If it had ended there, it would have been an appallingly grotesque act of a fiend.

No, the greatest evil still being perpetrated by Hitler was the indoctrination of childred.  “They had the Fuhrer in their eyes.”  Those boy soldiers grew up and taught their children the doctrines of hate.  And when those children had children of their own, they too passed on the poisonous cancer of intolerance.  As terrible as these beliefs are for those to whom they are directed, the worst pain of all is inflicted on the believers themselves.  They will never know peace and love, and they will never truly experience a sense of self-acceptance.  Hate only breeds more hate.  And in this way, Hitler still lives on and continues to enslave and destroy his followers.

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The following quote describes the residents of an undamaged Himmel Street returning home after an air raid:

The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west.  It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of humans into apparitions.
     There were no people on the street any more.
     They were rumours carrying bags.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 390

ARGH!  I just can’t see a movie being able to give you that.  “They were rumours carrying bags.”  They can make the set smoky, and they can have people trudge in front of the camera, but how can it ever fully express them as rumors?

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One of the stresses in the Hubermann household is that Hans isn’t a card-carrying party member.  Because he gave a Jewish shop owner back a little bit of his dignity by painting over an anti-Semitic slur on his door, Hans had never been approved membership.  Without being a member, people were reluctant to hire him as a painter.

What probably saved him was that people knew he was at least waiting for his application to be approved.  For this, he was tolerated, if not endorsed as the competent painter he was.
     Then There was his other saviour.
It was the accordion that most likely spared him from total ostracism.  Painters there were, from all over Munich, but under the brief tutorage of Erik Vandenburg and nearly two decades of his own steady practice, there was no-one in Molching who could play exactly like him.  It was a style not of perfection, but of warmth.  Even mistakes had a good feeling about them.

-The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak, page 191

Hans’ accordion had belonged to Erik Vandenburg, his friend and fellow soldier in World War I and the man who saved Hans’ life.  Hans and Erik had passed the time learning and playing the accordion, and in the years that followed Hans had developed his own special style that was much loved in his community.  Ironically, Erik Vandenburg was a Jew.

And being a Jew in Nazi Germany was the least desirable position of all, as the following quote points out:

You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy.  She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg.  Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms.  Her mother abandoned her.

But anything was better than being a Jew.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 168

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When Liesel first comes to live with the Hubermann’s at nine years of age, she is completely illiterate.  As Hans works with her, first teaching her the alphabet then words and sentences, she begins to understand and sense the power bound within the covers of books, and books themselves become objects of priceless worth.  So, when Liesel first steps into the personal library of Mayor’s wife, she is overcome with joy at the sight of it:

“Jesus, Mary… “

She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books.  Books everywhere!  Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving.  It was barely possible to see the paintwork.  There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the grey, the every-coloured books.  It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder she smiled.

That such a room existed!

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 141

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The last of my little post-it flags have been removed from my book, and I’m out of quotes.  I think I can finally part with my copy of The Book Thief, it’s destined for a fellow BookMoocher, though I guarantee I will grab any… and every, in all likelihood… copy I come across in the future.  I know I will re-read this book again, and probably more than once.

The final quote I’ll end this post with is the first few lines of the book:

First the colours.
     Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
     Or at least, how I try.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 13

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