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Letters from Proxima Thule

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There Is So Much to Unpack Here I Have to Use Capslock
 I have been up all night (AGAIN. FUCK.) because I decided to read a few pages of The Book Thief before I went to bed. Which turned into finishing it and now it is 6:30 am because that book is a million years long. 

I am not ok. I am profoundly disturbed. My thoughts are slowly forming, so forgive me if I am missing the thing that makes all this totally fine, and moreso I am slow because it is way early and so my blogging will have EXTRA CAPS WHICH SYMBOLIZE MY ANXIETY but I felt I had to tell you guys that I STRAIGHT UP NEEDED TO SAFEWORD THIS BOOK AT THE END. But not because of why you might think. Not because it was so profound about WWII, which is really a very upsetting time. That's not why. I wish it were why.

So the problem is it's a very beautifully written book. Trash I can write off no problem, that's what trash is for. But it's narrated by Death (+1) and the metaphors are super awesome (+1) and it is about a little girl who loves books (+100) and it has lots of postmodern geegaws and clicky things (+2 usually...but then a clever boy overdoes it and it becomes twee and oh I am so clever and sort of ruins it JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER). So from the first page I was like THIS IS THE BEST THING and I was happy because contrary to popular belief I actually like liking things better than hating them.

And then I realized Liesel wasn't Jewish. Which, she is totally fake-out set up to be, with her brother dying of cold and hunger in a train car in the opening pages. This is code for Welcome to the Jewish Kids in This Holocaust Novel. But she's not. In fact, there is pretty much only one Jew (who the kindly German protagonist's foster parents hide in their basement) in the whole book who has a name and an identity and isn't part of the amorphous mass of generic Jews either dying or walking to a place where they will die. Like, seriously, Death takes ALL THE PAGES lovingly discussing the death of one little German boy but the Jewish camp deaths are tossed off in a couple of paragraphs about how LOLZ HUMANS SUCK FOR SRS. 

And I start to have this sinking feeling. 

But I try not to pay attention. DO NOT BE CYNICAL, CAT. Surely this book is not just about Germans and how generally coolio they all were. That would Not Be Ok. 

And even now I can't in honesty say I'm sure that it was meant to look how it kind of looks? But there is serious Magical Jew going on, where Max Vanderberg teaches Liesel about friendship and writing things and the meaning of things and pretty much everyone in this suburb of Munich is super nice, like the worst thing any of them do is spit on someone's door for like thirty years because that's what gets old cranky ladies rocks off? None of them even work in like, a munitions factory or anything. They are humble tailors and painters and mayors. There's a couple of Hitler Youth bullies (kids are jerks in a vacuum I guess, or they're the only ones who got the memo about being Nazis now) but no one even seems all that pumped about Hitler at all except MAYBE one guy who comes and goes extra fast so no one has to be uncomfortable? There is seriously no moral conflict here at all and maybe that's why this is a YA novel? So that even when Papa gets drafted he doesn't have to actually do anything mean or bad for the Nazis he just cleans up bodies after bombings which is dangerous but kind of nice guy territory? And is this like the one town in all of Germany where everyone is just basically pretty nice to each other and don't do anything to support or not support the war but just wait it out? 

Because I do get the Not All Germans Were Evil thing, I do. It's not fair. Not all Russians (or even very many) were Stalin-loving KGB agents and not all Germans were loyal Nazis. And I get that you don't have to foreground the Worst of It for a book to be valid. I understand and agree with all of this. I didn't vote for Bush, I dig that sometimes shit gets off the fucking rails in a country and you are in no position at all to do anything about it. (Bush and Hitler are not the same, obviously.) But...no German character we know by name actually does anything bad onscreen. The kids are scamps and the grownups share a lot of Worried Looks and one kid loves Jesse Owens which proves he is totes not racist and I'm really fretting now because it's still very beautifully written even if he ends like 8 chapters in a row on the same grammatical and emotional note. (Things were awesome. BUT BAD THINGS WERE COMING. Only written nicely.)

So I finish the book and I'm like HRM. I FEEL SUPER WEIRD ABOUT THIS. So I got to the internet and read up on the critical responses (WHY must all our critical faculties go OUT THE WINDOW when WWII and Clever Boy Writers are involved?) and I find something out and I AM NOT OK.

Much like the protagonist of this book, Markus Zusak is not Jewish. I thought he was, because the book won the National Jewish Book Award. 

Instead he is second generation Austrian-German living in Australia. And his mom lived in a suburb of Munich during the bombing and the Jews being marched through and everything that was in the book kind of. 

Oh my god I am not ok with this. This is so much worse than regular cultural appropriation I don't know where to start. Like, I am not crazy? Yes, it is his family's story? But the story of the Holocaust is not one you get to take away from the Jews and be all BUT LITTLE GERMAN KIDS ARE REALLY CUTE AND WISE! Because you cannot be German and write a book about how Germans are super sweet and kind of rascally and adorbs during the war, a book in which no visible German does a visible bad thing and I guess it was all just Hitler, who it is safe to say was a Bad Man but surely did not do it all alone? (Obviously you can, but should you? Yes? Carry on then?) A book where no German even does anything morally grey like work in a bullet factory, or anything much worse than calling Jews pigs, which is somewhat lessened when they all call each other pigs all the time? Where the one Jew is this very convenient plot piece where he teaches everyone about love and survival and then very conveniently peaces out, only to conveniently survive Dachau and yay hugs all around because why explore any further in their new relationship which is going to be AWKWARD at the very least because this 24 year old is EXTRA FIXATED on this 13 year old when yay hugs? 

Basically, this is all based on his mother's stories of growing up in Nazi Germany and basically no one is going to write a book where they're all MOM AND ALL HER FRIENDS WERE EXTREMELY FUCKING CULPABLE AND BEAR SOME RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT SHIT THAT WENT DOWN THERE. Because then mom will never speak to you again. Surely someone mom knew did something vaguely in line with Nazi principles? No? THIS IS CONVENIENT.


And to make it all SO MUCH WORSE the blurb on the back says this book should be placed along side Anne Frank's Diary. WHAT. USA Today Critic, you are an asshole. Anne Frank lived it for REALS, you utter dick, and this book is a very beautifully written FICTION which is very subtly about how Germans were all nice people though, really. THOSE TWO THINGS ARE NOT THE SAME OH MY GOD WHO RAISED YOU.

So I am bothered by this because sometimes books are good but they implant ideas in the back of your head and you don't realize it right away but one morning you wake up and you're like BUT THAT'S CRAZY. Except I'm already up early so I realized it sooner. I am not Jewish, but I am offended on behalf of friends who had relatives who were in camps EVEN THOUGH LOVABLE GERMAN KIDS, YES and to background that in favor of some kind of Coming of Age in Nazi Germany that ends up being pretty warm and fuzzy right up until the bombing of Munich and then is warm and fuzzy immediately again afterward strikes me as, again, Not Ok. I cannot be friends with Death when he is all YES, YES, MILLIONS OF JEWS AND ALSO STALINGRAD IT ALL BLENDS BUT WHAT'S REALLY TOTES SAD IS THIS ONE GERMAN KID IN MUNICH.

I mean, maybe we are 2.0 now with regards to the Holocaust (we aren't) and now we can tell...the really important stories? Of very smart and kind German girls who unhealthily fixate on their foster fathers? I guess? I can't even write that, really. I mean, this thing takes place in a town that is on the road to Dachau, close enough that the Jews are marched through the streets on the regular. This is a fucked up place to be and there is no way everyone in that town worked as tailors and painters and somehow only a few dickhead kids in the Hitler Youth are meanies. It's not a deep examination of the shades of grey that allow such a thing to happen in your own backyard, of the slippery slope of just put your head down and it'll pass, it's not our concern, it's not a OMG twisty thing where you find yourself sympathizing with Nazis because the Nazis never really feature except as bizarrely good-natured Gestapo agents and those vague, non-local jerks who prod Jews but more importantly draft endearing accordion players. It's just a magical Brigadoon where the war just sort of doesn't happen in any meaningful way until it does all at once. And the one lady who experiences a Bad War Thing, and her son who we never met dies at Stalingrad? She was a bitchy old lady we're supposed to hate so there is no chance the reader will feel sad about it. ALSO HE IS A NAZI. I AM NOT SAD.

Maybe I am taking this all too seriously because it is early and I haven't slept but I just feel this is not on. At all. Like, I understand WWII narratives can get a certain sameness about them, and a fresh way into understanding that time and that conflict is welcome, and it is very beautiful in many places, and I'm sure many Germans were really nice people at heart--the Good German is like it's own genre at this point but this is a whole town of Good Germans and they never even FEEL BAD REALLY except for being worried for Max the Jew because Max taught them about things. And the book doesn't comment on that at all. I think it would be confused, like why should they feel bad because Dachau was right there the whole time? They didn't do anything bad themselves directly. Which is the point, that is not mentioned or ever engaged with, that not doing things directly SUCKS sometimes and does not get you off the moral hook.

But...but I am reduced to anxiety-filled trembling, not because this book was so profound it CHANGED MY LIFE as the NY Times said (OMG WITH THE CAPS, I did not add them this time) it would, but because I feel like I have myself been made morally culpable in a subtle and upsetting and very probably totally unintentional (please note I am not saying the author is a Nazi or anything, I don't think he meant to say this even a little, and certainly your heritage does not preclude you from writing about anything but in this case I think it sort of bears on the problems of the text? Which I am also uncomfortable saying? But really I'm only saying that you cannot write about your mom WHO HAS THE SAME NAME AS THE MAIN CHARACTER objectively and probably not appropriately if she was part of a cultural what have we done like wartime Germany) elision of kind of massive proportions. And I'm sure you will tell me this book is awesome because Everyone Ever loves it and I get why, I really do, and I love parts of it but there is this THING there, and it is VERY ELEPHANT SHAPED and it is IN A ROOM, if you get me.

I am not ok.

Huh. I haven't read it yet, partially *because* of all the hype (it hasn't reached the tipping point where it goes from overhyped to so overhyped I may as well read it for lolz), and partially because I *am* getting sick of holocaust novels. Not that I think we should stop talking about it, just that there's something that happens with a lot of books around it where I feel like it stops being about "look at this atrocity so that we can deal with it" and starts being more, like, Misery Tourism, if that makes sense.

This sounds more like romanticizing, and yeah, that's problematic in BIG ways.

I'm sure I'll have to read it eventually, what with being a YA librarian and this being such a GIANT BIG YA HIT (although only critically, as far as I can tell. I've never had any of my kids ask for it) and someone will probably want it on one of our summer reading lists eventually, at which point I will come back to this and think some more.

Oh but YIKES, I'm sorry something that started out so promising managed to disappoint you so profoundly!

I honestly can't see how a young reader would like it. It's huge with the postmodernist techniques and really quite long and slow in a lot of parts. Very little actually happens, and the narrator sort of hilariously spoils his own ending over and over because he is omniscient until there is no tension. I mean, I avoided saying who died but there's no point because the book tells you everything 200 pages before it happens.

It has a young protagonist but it's not a kids' book at all.

Thank you for just explaining why I totally didn't like the book and always stopped reading part of the way through.

Seconded. I seldom *don't* finish a book, but that one went back to the library unfinished.

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The end was kind of like that scene in Titanic where we see Photos of Kate Winslet's Awesome Life in Lieu of Actually Caring At All About That.

Oof. Sounds like One to Avoid. I must confess, the first things that came to mind for me were my semester as a junior high library TA, where I was responsible, essentially, for the WWII shelves, resulting in my reading a lot of Holocaust literature/history, and one of those titles in particular, Mischling, Second Degree, about a German girl whose parents concealed from her that she was a quarter Jewish, and sent her off to live with her German grandma, whereupon she joined up with Hitler Youth groups (though she had no interest, it was, well, survival-wise expedient) and gradually came to know about her heritage. IIRC, she and others within the Nazi machine actively participated in some resistance activities, but it's been about 20 years, so I could be totally wrong. I guess the memories of the book came up with the whole "Good Germans" and "history is complicated" ideas.

I really need to get back to sonnets now.

There were Good Germans! And history is complicated!

But this book makes it kind of uncomplicated, and also all the Germans are good except the ones who are just walk ons and we aren't supposed to pay attention to them.

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I haven/t read the book and I likely wouldn't've, but that is one of the most engaging yet thoughtful critical book reviews I've ever read, thank you.

I feel like I've learned something about writing reviews from reading this one.

Wow! Well, I'm glad--I mostly feel like I am vaguely flailing.

Huh. Thank you very much for safewording this for me. I was planning to read it over the break, and now I won't touch it.

Wow! I loved this review more than it sounds like I'd enjoy the book. I'd never even heard of it until your review.

Thanks from me, too. There's lots of pressure to read it here and it sounds like the stuff of my nightmares. I hate it when something is beautifully written with an elephant and in this case it's an elephant that's close to home (I'm both Australian and Jewish).

Add one to the "Thanks for safewording this" pile. It almost sounds like one of those books that people think YAs *should* read, because it is Beautiful And Important but that isn't actually a YA book. I remember there being a bunch of books on my high school reading lists that I read because I worked in a used bookstore and had the time to, but most of my peers hated because they were Beautiful And Important And Boring As Hell.

Thank god I'm not the only one who has encountered this. 12th grade saw me having to study In The Skin Of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje because it was Beautiful And Important And Boring As Hell. I challenged my teacher on numerous occasions to tell me why this book was so important, and she couldn't come up with a better reason that it was Beautiful And Important.

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I only read TB occasionally, and hit the capslock au naturel, but I admit to having been reading it yesterday.

When my wife was a grad student, her adviser and everyone else in his research group was German. One of her lab-mates explained to her that if she, as a Jew, went to Germany, everyone would want to be her friend. My wife tried to explain to him that singling Jews out for this kind of patronizing treatment Is Not Good, but the lab-mate Just Didn’t Get It.

Then, after hearing the things her various lab-mates said about the Turks, my wife concluded that the German people (or at least, this sampling of the German people) hadn’t learned anything from the Holocaust, after all.

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I so wish I didn't know that.

I think your analysis is spot-on in ways that I couldn't articulate when I taught this book in a "Death in Children's Literature" class a couple years ago. But I have two points to make. One is that, as far as I know, this book was marketed as YA only in the US, and that in Australia, it was published as a book for adults. Why? I have no idea, but I think the YA designation is an odd one. From his Wikipedia entry, it looks like his other books were children's books, which would explain it, but I'm not sure he intended it to be a YA.

My only point of disagreement with you comes here:

But the story of the Holocaust is not one you get to take away from the Jews and be all BUT LITTLE GERMAN KIDS ARE REALLY CUTE AND WISE!

Well, I hate the "all kids are cute and wise" trope no matter how you cut it, but I do think a case can be made for telling a Holocaust story that isn't about the Jewish experience of it. Basically, I think Zusak missed the opportunity to tell a really interesting story. The reason that Liesl and her dying brother and her mother are on that train to begin with, as I recall, is because the father has been taken to the camps, not because he was Jewish, but because he was a communist. And there's an interesting story there, and one worth telling, about the persecution and the destruction of the left in Germany under Hitler, just as it would be worth telling the story of the Roma's experience of the Holocaust. I don't mean to be all "Jews weren't the only ones in the camps," because obviously the destruction and persecution of the Jews was a main tenet--the main tenet?--of Nazism and German life under the Nazis, but the Nazis did sometimes turn their attentions to other groups, and yes, I'd like to read those stories.

That's the story I thought we were going to get when I was reading the first few chapters of The Book Thief, but, unfortunately, Zusak didn't want to tell that story, perhaps because doing so would have required a bit more research than listening to his mother's stories? That was a pretty cheap shot on my part, but still.

On the topic of other Holocaust literature published for kids, I must say that as a kid I loved Mischling, Second Degree, but found Anne Frank's diary incredibly boring. I haven't revisited either as an adult, and probably won't.

Yes, I think you're right, and of course other stories can and should be told and the Roma, communist, and gay experiences in the camps are severely underdiscussed. But here there were so many problems with where the camera was at and what it was choosing not to notice, as well as ridiculously non-militarized and honestly, non-Nazi life, that I felt like we got neither a new holocaust story nor a new German story except in that I am not sure anyone has even tried to wash up the German experience this much before.


I had put this on my to-buy list because of your recommendation, but hadn't gotten around to making the purchase.

Should I go ahead and read it? I think, knowing what I do now, it might actually make me sick to my stomach. But if you say it's a good read, I'll give it a whirl because I trust and respect your opinion.

Or, maybe... could you offer up a different book to read that is "meta" so that I can get a better feel for the concept?

It IS a...I can't quite bring myself to say good, but it's a beautiful book for sure.

For meta try House of Leaves? Or I really did love Everything Is Illuminated even though it goes a little too far with the pomo means never having to write emotions schtick.

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First, can I just say that I love how much you care about...well, everything, and how passionate you are and how hard you try to express your feelings and opinions?

Second, I think you've helped me see why I could not get through this book. Early on, there is a passing reference to the yellow stars I think on the doors of Jews who have been taken away and it was SO passing that it made me sick to my stomach and I just put the book down.