White Rose

Image result for white rose kip wilsonFirst Lines: The cars screech to a halt, officers pull us out by the arms, haul us inside and off to separate rooms, my heartbeat pounding all the while, boom-boom, boom-boom.

Now that I’ve taught books related to the Holocaust in my classroom for the last 5 years, I find myself very attuned to them.  Like, I’m always finding a new one crossing my path, but I’m always reluctant to read them because, you know, darkness.  (I tend to internalize a lot of that, so it’s hard to want to read books I know will make me sad.)  Still, this one about a German organization standing up to Hitler–and based on the very true story–caught my attention.

Sophie Scholl is a young German college student disillusioned by the Nazi propaganda machine.  With her brother and some of his friends, they start a secret organization called the White Rose to write and distribute pamphlets criticizing Hitler and demanding action.  But when Sophie and her brother are arrested and accused of treason, how long can they hold out against the government they despise?

Not knowing about the White Rose, beyond their name at least, was a definite bonus while reading this because I was in suspense practically the whole time. Sophie, our narrator, sees that what Hitler is doing is wrong and she can’t stand that people are being hurt–and later killed–under his leadership. But everyone’s so afraid of saying something that they sit back. Sophie’s tired of it.

It is a remarkably timely story of complicity through silence. There were times reading this where I immediately connected it with what’s happening in the news or something that I’ve seen recently in day-to-day life. It’s a universal feeling, seeing that something’s wrong and wanting to do something about it. But do you act on that or do you just keep your head down?

The story is told in verse, which makes it an incredibly fast read. I did enjoy getting through a book that quickly again. But the verse also allows Sophie to highlight what’s actually going on without us getting bogged down by descriptions and details. We’re kept simply to her letters, her perceptions, and the very limited verses of other minor characters who impacted her life. You get it. You see everyone’s perspectives, no matter how short, and you just…understand.

As with most stories about the Holocaust, it has its moments where it gets hard to read because of what the Nazis are doing, what the normal Germans are doing (or aren’t doing), war, concentration camps, and Jewish persecution. It’s a heavy topic, but the verse keeps it a little lighter, at least.

It really is a touching story. I’m definitely going to be taking a closer look at the White Rose in the future.

Wintersong (Wintersong, #1)

Image result for wintersongFirst Lines: Once there was a little girl who played her music for a little boy in the wood.  She was small and dark, he was tall and fair, and the two of them made a fancy pair as they danced together, dancing to the music the little girl heard in her head.  Her grandmother had told her to beware the wolves that prowled in the wood, but the little girl knew the little boy was not dangerous, even if he was the king of goblins.

This was in a display at my library for winter-themed books and, having been on my to-read shelf for some time, I grabbed it.  (It helps a lot that I’m going through a very strong fantasy phase right now–fantasy, paranormal, anything that is vastly different from our world.)  The fact that this sort of sounds like a fairy tale sold me on it.

Since she was a little girl, Liesl has heard stories of the Goblin King.  Stories of how dangerous he is, of how enticing.  At 18 and helping her family run their inn, Liesl uses those stories of the Goblin King to help escape her crushing, hopeless, creatively-draining world.  Feeling her chance at composing slipping through her fingers, Liesl becomes bitter toward her family.  But that all chances when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, who is very much real.  Liesl has no choice but to go to the Underground to get her sister back.  The Underground is mysterious, beautiful, terrifying…and so is the man who rules it.  Faced with ancient laws that work against her, Liesl will be faced with impossible choices to save her sister and herself before her fate is sealed.

This was really different, and I liked that even if I didn’t always follow what was happening.

First of all, I loved the setting. It just felt different. While the year is never specified, it’s pretty clearly Germany in about 1600s-early 1800s, probably skewing more toward early to mid-1700s. (Composers are mentioned by name, so I used those dates to firm up my idea.) This is such a different setting already that I was pulled in.

The whole Der Erlkonig bit was interesting too, though I admit I didn’t always follow that. Being the Goblin King, he’s got magical powers that he uses to trick and pull Liesl into his traps. Of course, there’s more to him and his world than meets the eye.

The plot stuck with me even after I finished the story.  I can’t even quite say why.  Well, ok, maybe I can a little.  I mean, it sort of has this Alice in Wonderland/Persephone and Hades feel to it, which is a story line I adore.  So Liesl gets sucked into an underground world that she doesn’t understand, led by a man she doesn’t trust and creatures that are more than a little scary at times.  That basically sums things up and, no matter how many times I read similar stories, I just keep coming back.

And while I kind of understood who he was as a person and what made him tick, there was some distance between me as the reader and him. I felt like the characters–not just him–were kind of closed off from the audience. This book read more like Literature than a story, so maybe that was part of it. The writing felt loftier. Not that that’s bad, but I did find myself skimming at times on accident.

Still, it was interesting and I do want to see what happens next.

Refugee

Image result for refugee alan gratzFirst Lines: Crack! Bang!  Josef Landau shot straight up in bed, his heart racing.  That sound–it was like someone had kicked the front door in.  Or had he dreamed it?

This book came to my attention thanks to another teacher in my school.  She wanted to do something with our kids called the Global Read Aloud and I was reluctant.  But she won out and I had to give this book a read so I knew what my kids were going to be reading.

Josef Landau knows what danger is.  Being a Jew in Germany in 1939 means bad things–and his family is getting out.  But getting out of Germany and finding somewhere safe is nearly impossible… Isabel Fernandez knows what poverty is.  Growing up in Cuba under Fidel Castro and after the fall of the Soviet Union, she knows there is not enough food to go around and she watched the country riot.  And when her father gets caught in a riot in 1994, she knows her family needs to leave Cuba.  Quickly.  …Mahmoud Bhasara knows what war is.  Living in Syria in 2015, he’s watched his country be destroyed by both inside and outside forces.  And when war finally lands on his front door, his family must flee.  But the journey won’t be easy.  For anyone.

In the current political climate, I think it is so important to understand who these people are and why they leave their home countries. In none of the three story lines do they leave because they want to. They are forced out by war, by poverty, by government. And in every story line, they are turned away time and time again because they are seen as “unclean” or criminals. It’s a horrible reality that this is the way many people view refugees. If the shoe were on the other foot, they would not be able to stomach this kind of treatment against themselves.

Each of the three story lines (which alternate between each other after short chapters) is emotional, with ups and downs. Sometimes really dark downs. But that shows the reality of their situation.

Isabel was perhaps my favorite of the three. Stubborn and determined, Isabel fights to get her family free from Cuba before her father gets arrested for rioting against Fidel Castro. Mahmoud is a Syrian refugee, fleeing Aleppo after the apartment building he lives in with his family is bombed. And Josef is a German Jew whose father was sent to Dachau. His family needs to flee Germany while they still can or risk being sent to the concentration camps as well.

I thought this book was a great insight into what actually happens to refugees and the staggered timelines involved show that this process really hasn’t changed any over time. (Josef’s is in 1939, Isabel’s in 1994, and Mahmoud’s in 2015.)

It’s not something I would have chosen for myself to read, but I liked it. It just didn’t grab me as much as it would/will other people. It’s just too dark for me right now, with the world already feeling like it’s being plunged into darkness.

But I will say, having started teaching this to my students, they really enjoy it.  They like the drama of it all, and the few comedic characters who bring much needed levity.  Of course, everyone has a different favorite story line based on their interests, but it’s kind of fun to actually watch my students get pulled into a book.  Most of the time, I hand them a book and they do all the reading outside of class.  This time, I get to see it all happen in my room.  And that’s probably what I like best at the moment.

The Book Thief

Courage beyond words.

It’s been a really long time since I’ve done a movie review!  I really want to get back into doing those, but sometimes just keeping up with book reviews is hard enough. But I just had to do one for The Book Thief, which is a beautiful book.  I wanted to see how the movie compared.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book and the movie, I’ll give you a quick summary.  It’s 1938, Germany, and Liesel Meminger’s brother has just died.  As he’s being buried, Liesel steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook.  Dropped at the door of a new foster family, Liesel has to start life without her brother or her mother. Her new mama, Rosa, is a rude but caring woman, and Papa, Hans, is a kind-hearted man who slowly worms his way into Liesel’s heart.  In her new home, Liesel learns to read with the help of Papa and the handbook she stole.  But life is about to get a lot more complicated when a new war begins and a Jew shows up on their front steps looking for refuge.

I thought this was a really good adaptation.  Obviously, some things were changed from the book.  I was able to pick out a few as I watched, but it didn’t necessarily bother me.  The essence of the story was the same and what they took out wasn’t really all that big for the plot.  It was little details that were changed or slightly larger things that the movie just didn’t have time to cover.  It’s 2 hours and 11 minutes long.  Give it a little slack.

The acting was pretty good as well.  The kids, Liesel and Rudy, felt like real kids.  They were convincing.  But the best actor (as he usually is) is Geoffrey Rush, who played Papa. I have such an uncle-crush on him.  (As in, I wish he was my honorary uncle.  Victor Garber and Gary Oldman also have this distinction.)  He played Papa so well.  You always knew what Papa was feeling.  It was so charming.

I also really liked Max, the Jew looking for refuge.  There was something innocent and jaded about him.  He’s always been one of my favorite characters from this story, but this just helped solidify it.  Now I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but he didn’t have as thick of a German accent as the rest of the characters did.

Which leads to my next point.  German and German accents were prevalent throughout the whole movie.  Which was cool.  I don’t hear a lot of German…like ever.  And I almost never hear a German accent while characters are speaking English.  I didn’t realize how hard that accent is to copy!  And it was a little strange.  “Rudy” sometimes sounded like “Woody.”  But it added a level of authenticity to the story.

And, of course, Death as the narrator is still so clever.  As morbid as it is, I really like it.  What doesn’t Death see?  Death sees everything.  He narrates the story well, though it’s not as present as I thought it would be.  He mostly just shows up in the beginning, a little in the middle, and again at the end.  That’s it.

I should warn you that this is going to make you cry.  If the book made you cry (like it did me), then this will do it too.