The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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The first time I read The Book Thief was when the book was given to me by a family friend years ago. The second time was for school, to analyze it in English class. The third, and so far last time, was a few weeks ago. Every time I have read it, it has always been very enjoyable.

The novel takes place in Germany during the Second World War, a time of great tragedies and massive casualties for both soldiers on the battlefield and civilians at home. That tone is accentuated by the choice of the author Markus Zusak to have the narrator be the personification of Death himself. Death is not merely cold and unforgiving as society often perceives him. His character is far more solemn and sympathetic to the struggles of the characters.

And who are the characters? Well first there is the main one: Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is adopted by foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. There is also Max Vandenburg, a Jew who hides in the Hubermann household, and several other more minor but no less interesting characters. 

Zusak does an excellent job of developing these characters and making the reader develop an emotional connection with them. Even Rosa Hubermann, who often seems rough and abrasive at the beginning, grows on the reader as the book goes on. That emotional connection makes all of the struggles and tragedies that afflict the characters throughout the book all the more heartbreaking.

Along with the theme of mortality and struggle is the theme of reading. Throughout these hard times, Liesel often finds an escape by reading several books. Liesel uses reading to connect with the ailing Max Vandenburg. The Nazis, being the antagonists of the book, often burn books that question their regime. The theme of reading contrasts sharply with the theme of mortality. Reading offers hope to the main characters while they deal with the trials and tribulations they are faced with.

And how relevant is that theme? The past year has been a struggle for all of us, and we often found reading as an escape from the problems we dealt with. During the beginning of the pandemic, when it felt like society was shutting down, we used reading to give us a glimmer of hope and as an escape from the stress of world events, just as how Liesel uses reading in the book.

Thus, The Book Thief, a book written a decade and a half ago remains relevant to the struggles we face today, and remains one of my favorite books of all time.

-Adam A.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

Hiroshima By John Hersey

As a lover of fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels, reading a nonfiction book comprised of a newspaper report doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. However, Hiroshima was surprisingly different compared to other historical novels. Obviously, it’s based on a journal excerpt, but John Hersey managed to create a book from real-life situations of different survivors–all from a story-telling and personalized perspective. To say that the book was eye-opening or underrated would still be an understatement.

Published by The New Yorker, Hiroshima takes place in 1945 during World War II, with intricate descriptions of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and multiple remarks from traumatized survivors. Hersey focuses on six people specifically, recording what happened and how they felt both before and after the explosion. His writing was very smooth for a journal report; he wrote about completely different lifestyles diminished into pure survival to make each more comparable, almost like fictional characters.

As a forewarning, this book can get gruesomely detailed and saddening. Death lurks everywhere as the main character and it can become suffocating to read at times because it’s so overwhelming, especially when you know that this information isn’t fiction. Nonetheless, this novel holds such a big impact on its readers to this today, even when it seems so depressing.

I will admit that there are some parts where the book can drag in change in regards to the plot, albeit this book is genuine, not sugar-coated to make America look like the heroes compared to Japan. It wasn’t made to entertain, it was made to inform. John Hersey, an American journalist, managed to expose America’s wrongdoings and use his own experience of witnessing the aftermath as a lesson for future generations of our society.

Initially, the United States kept the Hiroshima bombing as a secret from the public, so it essentially revealed the horror and consequences of violence as a whole. The idea of innocent people wrongfully suffering from the hands of political views and ideology proves that the truth is much more terrible than fiction, but also much more valuable. This was a mistake in our history that Hersey wrote about to prevent such a thing from happening again–to look towards basic human decency instead of who’s right and who’s wrong.

No matter what genre one may interest in, this book is definitely worth reading. It stems from much more than a plot or pages of information, helping readers understand the heavy reality of our world.

– Natisha P.

Hiroshima by John Hersey is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Anne Frank: The Biography by Melissa Müller

Being a student that has always found history about the holocaust to be interesting, Melissa Müller’s Anne Frank: The Biography was a fascinating biography.

Most know who Anne Frank was, a little girl who displayed her story through writing. Anne Frank’s journal is a treasured diary that is loved and appreciated by millions around the world and continues to be cherished every day. Müller’s recreation gives more factual information about Anne Frank’s life instead of Anne’s words alone. This book gives insight before Anne started writing and what happened after the Franks were caught hiding. With pictures included, a family tree, and much more, this novel is very detailed and allows the audience to truly understand how harsh life was as a Jewish individual. Müller dives deeper down into Anne’s personality and what type of person she was at school and at home. This biography answers questions that were never answered in Anne’s diary such as the major discussion revolving who the tattletale was who initially caused the capture of the Frank family.

This novel is 330 pages long and it may be considered a difficult read for some but if you do need a good and captivating nonfiction story, this is a must do! By the end, one definitely will become more educated about this subject and how hard it was living in this era for some people.

– Amandine K.

Anne Frank: The Biography by Melissa Muller is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

The Book Thief by Mark Zusak

As a lover of historical fiction books, this novel always caught my eye when I passed by the shelves of the library, but I never looked into it because I assumed the book would be generic and clique. Recent famous novels I’ve read tend to follow the same plot line and character development, so most readers are not surprised by the ending. However, The Book Thief, written by Mark Zusak, an Australian writer who won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2014, has created a classic that lives up to its recognition, taking an interesting perspective on such a well known historical event. It dives deeper into the heart of World War 2, pushing the novel further through the contradictory and questionable actions of the human race.

Beginning on a train in the 1940s, the main character, Liesel Meminger witnesses the death of her younger brother on their way to Molching, Germany, where she meets her new foster parents. Throughout the story, Liesel grows as a character, unfolding the cruel reality of Hitler and his treatment of Jews and how it ties to her own story, thus encouraging her to write and steal books as an act of rebellion against the Nazis. The book grows through her normal life in Germany, yet slowly intertwines with history in a compelling manner. The main character witnesses the intimate, loving interactions between friends and family, but also the aggressive actions of others blinded by propaganda.

Compared to other historical fiction novels, Zusak provides readers another viewpoint on a historical event many are aware of, making readers acknowledge the other side of the war. The book makes us question ourselves and the validity of our opinions. For example, most believe all Germans were villainous because a majority were Nazi members, but there’s still a good portion of Germans that value all human life. Generally speaking, all of them are still just the same as we are; some were innocent children, others were working middle class jobs, many still wanted to live. But most importantly, what right do we have to villainize them if we don’t even feel sympathy or compassion in return? Zusak was able to brilliantly create a novel, who’s plots and underlying meanings create a puzzle–readers just have to put it together.

Despite the grand amount of pages, The Book Thief should be read slowly and carefully; every page has their own meaning and the slow pace builds up suspense to make the book a worthy read. Also, all of the characters are lovable and reveal their own flaws as humans. Overall, the author made it extremely unique, including a mixture of metaphors, imagery, and specifically, the humanistic characterization of Death. The context of the book was surprisingly poetic, even as it jumped to different passages of time. Zusak wrote a marvelous, emotional story as an ode to humanity itself, a tale that tugs at readers’ heartstrings in ways words can’t even describe.

-Natisha P.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea, written by best-seller author of Between Shades of Grey Ruta Sepetys, tells a heart-wrenching and gripping historical fiction account of an overlooked by-product of WWII. Tragically symbolic of the disaster, Sepetys eternalizes the story of human struggle across the pages of the novel from four intertwined voices: Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred.

The unique characters, of varying backgrounds—a compassionate Lithuanian nurse, an innocent German soldier, a young, pregnant Polish girl, and a careful Prussian thief—cross the paths of each other, pushed together by calamity and betrayal. The book follows their journey to the Wilhelm Gustloff, the only light at the end of their tunneled worlds. The ship, an escape from the Red Army, however, is overpopulated.

The cruel truth of the history, as well as the fictional characters created, brings the world in the book to life. Although the back-stories for the characters are not explicitly written, the mystery brings a kind of de-personalization to the series of events that occur. A reader can feel him or herself more realistically in the story, stumbling upon a group of strangers, coming together, and getting to know one another by circumstance. And then, when their stories are over, all that is left of them is a memory of the time spent together. A point evocatively hit upon in the story was how someone can be judged based solely on his or her shoes. Whether they are in good condition, made from good material, their laces (or lack thereof), a person’s shoes tell their whole story.

This particular comment reminded me of the Paul Simon song, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. The song, though brimming with shifting poly-rhythms and clever lyrics, simply tells the story of a rich New York girl, her many suitors, and her shoes, the soles laced with diamonds. Likewise, although the shoes of Sepetys’ characters tell a bit about each of their individual and unique stories, the world full of horror and hardship will continue to label these accounts as simple stories, overlooking true human condition.

For all historical fiction readers and shoe lovers, I highly recommend Sepetys’ book. She maintains a striking balance between history and fiction. And because of her beautiful words, I give her nothing but the highest praise.

-Maya S.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Nearly six decades after its original publication, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 remains one of America’s most valuable – and most entertaining – classics of all time. Depicting the brutal insanity of war in a way no one else has quite managed, Heller and Catch-22 have cemented themselves in American literature.

Set in Italy during World War II, Catch-22 tells the story of the disillusioned bombardier Yossarian, who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are constantly trying to kill him, including both the enemy forces and the people within his own army. 

The most significant of these would-be killers is undeniably the titular Catch-22, which states that a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. 

Trapped in this endless cycle of missions and death, the soldiers on the island of Pianosa are forced to adapt to their constant torture by hiding in the hospital ward, enjoying illegal meals in the mess hall, and generally doing their best to be a nuisance to Colonel Cathcart, who continues to raise the missions needed to be relieved from duty.

Combining serious matters with lighthearted humor, Catch-22 is a book that everyone should read at least once in their lives. This fascinating look at the negative aspects of war, inspired by World War II and the Vietnam War, is a book that is impossible to put down. 

-Mahak M. 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Authors We Love: Ruta Sepetys

Ruts Sepetys is one of the most well known young adult historical fiction authors ever! With historical fiction being my favorite genre, I consider myself proud to say that Ruta Sepetys is my favorite author of all time. I have read all of the books she has written and I consider every single one of them to be some of my favorite books. 

Unlike many historical fiction authors, she doesn’t exclusively write about one event in history. With a setting like New Orleans, Barcelona, and Siberia, Sepetys takes us into a plethora of historical events, with different time periods, people, and settings. 

One specific thing I love about historical fiction is you learn something along the way, and all of Ruta Sepetys writes about overlooked events in history. These aren’t things you learn from your history textbook, they’re much more than that. Her books take you on a journey through events like the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that took 10 times the lives the Titanic did, and is the biggest maritime disaster of all time. But for some unknown reason, nobody talks about it, except for Sepetys.

Not only does she shed these huge historical events to light, but she does also these events justice. Although what she writes is fiction, the historical events they’re based on are all too real. Sepetys does an amazing job of research. In her most recent novel, The Fountains of Silence, the back of the book offered more details about her writing and research process, as well as pages of her notes. Sepetys do years and years of research for just one novel, and by reading the books you can tell how much effort was put into them. 

As for her World War Il novels, she has interviewed countless figures, both strangers and family, that were involved in those events, and based some of her books off of real events her family has gone through. 

Another part that I really love about her books is her writing style. With short and quick chapters, the writing allows you to be constantly engaged. The constant point of view switches keep you on your toes and makes every single one of her books a page-turner.

Between Shades of Gray (2011): Not your everyday World War 2 novel, Between Shades of Gray shows the dark side of Polish deportation and labor camps. With a knowledgeable protagonist and a family trying not to fall apart in the face of war, this brutal novel is a must-read. My Rating: 9/10

Out of the Easy (2013): Out of the Easy is a novel describing the life of the daughter of a prostitute longing to be free and live her own life outside of the bustling city of New Orleans. When a customer at her bookstore is found dead, she finally finds the escape she’s been looking for. My Rating: 7/10

Salt to the Sea (2016): The biggest maritime disaster, and the long path refugees are forced to take to flee Germany, this story tells the tale no one wishes to tell about World War 2.  In this novel, everyone has a secret to tell, and with them come guaranteed tears. My Rating: 10/10

The Fountains of Silence (2019): the Fountains of Silence tells the unknown story of how the Spanish people recovered after their own civil war. Told through the eyes of a photographer tourist from Texas, and a hotel employee who works hard for every penny she earns. This novel shows the trials and tribulations of most families during the reconstruction, but the star of this novel is truly the romance. Greatest of all, you get to learn about what’s really happening with the Spanish government behind closed doors. My Rating: 9/10

-Asli B. 

The works of Ruta Sepetys are available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. They can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive

Authors We Love: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway (Author of The Old Man and the Sea)

Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 — July 2, 1961) was an American writer and journalist who lived in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Hemingway won many awards during his life. He was awarded the silver medal for bravery during World War I. In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for the Old Man and the Sea, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. In 2001, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms were included in The American Modern Library‘s list of The 100 Best English Novels of The 20th Century. Hemingway was a representative figure among the “Lost Generation” writers in the United States. In his works, he showed confusion and hesitation about life, the world and the society. He has always been known as a tough guy in the literary world, and he is the spiritual monument of the American nation. Hemingway’s works mark the formation of his unique style of creation, and occupy an important position in the history of American and world literature.

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park and was baptised at Walloon Lake. Hemingway spent most of his childhood in his farmhouse at Walloon Lake, reading picture books and animal comics and listening to all kinds of stories. He liked to imitate different characters and was interested in sewing and other domestic things. Hemingway’s mother wanted her son to pursue a musical career, but Hemingway followed his father’s interests, such as hunting, fishing, and camping in the woods and lakes. So Hemingway, who grew up in a farmhouse on Walloon Lake, loved nature. From 1913 to 1917, Hemingway received high school education, academic performance, physical education, and an outstanding talent in English. He got his first writing experience in junior high, writing for two literary newspapers. When he entered high school, he became the editor of the journal. He sometimes uses the name Ring Lardner Jr in honor of his literary hero, Ring Lardner . After high school, Hemingway, rejecting college, began his writing career at the age of 18 as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, an influential newspaper in the United States. During his six months working for the Kansas City Star, Hemingway received good training.

In 1918, despite his father’s opposition, Hemingway quit his job as a journalist and tried to join the U.S. military to observe the fighting in World War I. Hemingway failed the physical examination due to a visual defect and was transferred to the Red Cross ambulance team as an ambulance driver. On his way to the Italian front, he stopped in Paris under German bombardment. Instead of staying in a safe hotel, he kept as close as he could to the battle. Hemingway witnessed the cruelty of war on the Italian front, shocked by the explosion of an ammunition depot near Milan and the fact that more women than men died in a makeshift morgue. Hemingway was awarded a silver medal for bravery by the Italian government on July 8, 1918, when he was wounded while transporting supplies and dragged the wounded Italian soldiers to safety. Later, Hemingway worked in an American Red Cross hospital in Milan. It was the inspiration for his early novel A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway regarded himself as the protagonist of the novel, the original creation.

In 1920, Hemingway moved to Toronto, Ontario, where he lived in an apartment. While there, Hemingway took a job with the Toronto Star as a freelance writer, reporter, and overseas correspondent, and struck up a friendship with Morley Callaghan, a star reporter. Between 1920 and 1921, Hemingway lived near Chicago’s north side and worked for a small newspaper. In 1921, Hemingway married his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and moved to a three-story apartment on the North side of Chicago in September. By December, the Hemingways had moved out of the country and never returned to live there. Ernest Hemingway, settled in Paris, gave an interview to the Star newspaper about the Greek-Turkish War (1919-1922). Back in Paris, Anderson guided Hemingway into the “Paris Modernist Movement.” Hemingway’s first novel, “Three Stories and Ten Poems,” was published in Paris in 1923. After the birth of his first son, Hemingway quit his job at the Toronto Star to support the family.

In 1925, the short story series In Our Time was published, showing a concise style of writing. 1926 Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises was published. In 1927, Hemingway divorced Hadley Richardson and married his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer and published Men Without Women. Hemingway left Paris in 1928 to live a quiet idyllic life in Florida and Cuba. He often goes hunting, fishing, and watching bullfights. Within a few years, Hemingway’s second and third sons were born. In 1931, Hemingway moved to Key West (where he lived in a house that is now a museum) and gathered material for Death in the Afternoon and Winner Gets Nothing. Death in the Afternoon was published in 1932. In 1937-38, he worked as a war correspondent on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, he went with the army as a journalist and fought in the liberation of Paris. During this time, Hemingway’s essay “Denouncement” was published in 1969 with “The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War.”

Hemingway and Pfeiffer’s marriage ended in 1940. During this period, physical health problems came one after another, causing great trouble to Hemingway. In the same year, Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, an anti-fascist novel set in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1950, Across the River and into the Trees, set in Venice after World War II. After the Pacific War broke out at the end of 1941, Hemingway immediately converted his yacht into a patrol boat to monitor the operations of German submarines and provide information for the destruction of the enemy. In the mid-1990s, Alexander Vasiliev, a former KGB officer, was granted access to Soviet intelligence archives. He was surprised to discover that Hemingway had been recruited as a KGB spy in 1941, codenamed Argo. Unfortunately, he had no talent for obtaining any valuable information.

In 1944, Hemingway accompanied the American army to Europe for an interview. He was seriously injured in a plane crash, but after recovering, he still went behind enemy lines for an interview. After the end of the second world war, he received a bronze medal. Hemingway divorced Martha in 1948, married Mary Welsh Hemingway, a wartime correspondent, and returned to Cuba shortly thereafter. Hemingway took his own life with a shotgun in Idaho on July 2, 1961, at age 62. Hemingway has an excellent command of language. He often employs the simplest words to express the most complex content, basic words and short sentence patterns to express the specific meaning, nouns and verbs to reveal the true colors of things without any affectation. Hemingway’s life and literary career were controversial from the start. Hemingway, whether as a legendary figure or as a writer, created a concise and smooth style with his unique artistic style and superb writing skills, which purified the traditional style of writing of a generation and had a great impact on the European and American literary circles.

-Coreen C.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

Islands in the Stream: A Novel - Kindle edition by Hemingway ...

Islands in the Stream is a novel by American writer Ernest Hemingway. Published in 1970, it is one of Hemingway’s last works. It tells the story of painter Thomas’s rough experience of life. Painter Thomas went through ups and downs, had two marriage changes, the three children born after marriage were raised by his ex-wife. He loved his career and his children and often went fishing with them. There is a deep bond between father and son. Unfortunately, two of his sons were killed in a car accident, and the only remaining son was killed in World War II. In the end, Thomas decided to throw his personal sorrows and joys behind the tide of the anti-fascist war. In 1942, as the war in Europe raged, Hemingway commanded a submarine in Cuba to gather intelligence on the Nazis on the island, substituting espionage for writing and personal military adventures for brutal warfare. Although opinions vary on Hemingway’s adventures, this serious military action provided valuable material for his writing, based on which he wrote Islands in the Stream. In July 1944, Hemingway fought ground battles against allied troops in Normandy. For more than 20 days, he was in the midst of a bloody struggle.

The severity and danger of this war have never been greater. The terrible memory of the war pained him greatly. Hemingway, who experienced the cruelty of war, was awarded a medal. But the war made him more conscious. His experience of war was written into his series of war novels. In Islands in the Stream, Hemingway, by portraying the image of painter Thomas, once again emphasized the tough man spirit advocated by him, which is unyielding and indomitable. Thomas, the main character of the book, likes painting and fishing. He has been to the America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. But in middle age he chose to live in the Bahamas, rather than on the islands of Cuba which lies in the Gulf Stream. Through the crucible of his mind and body, Thomas persevered and dealt doggedly with his enemies. He embodies the characteristics of the tough guy that Hemingway often describes, and is a very successful artistic model.

-Coreen C.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Night by Elie Wiesel is a terrifying story of the Holocaust during World War 2. Elie was born in Sighet, Transylvania. He lived a normal age until the day that he and his family were taken to a concentration camp formerly called Auschwitz. There he is separated from his mother and sisters. He is told to lie about his age and job in order to survive.

After he tells a guard about his age, he is led away with his father. Some days after, they are taken to Buna, a work camp. They work long hours and are very malnourished. Due to the harsh conditions, the Jews must look after one another. This behavior doesn’t last long, and soon all the Jews care about is that they survive. This pushes many of them to commit horrific crimes for extra rations of bread. They quickly lose faith in God and no longer pray. This brings on a worse despair. After some months of labor, the prisoners are soon to be liberated by the Russians. Because of this, the Germans decide to move the prisoners. They are forced to march through a snowstorm to another concentration camp called Gleiwitz. Once at Gleiwitz, they are crammed into cattle cars. All 100 prisoners that hadn’t died were tightly packed against one another. Most cannot take anymore pain and die on the train. Once the train stops at Buchenwald, only 12 prisoners get off of the train. Soon after arriving, Elie’s father dies of dysentery on April 11, 1945. After experiencing so much, this breaks Elie and he is transformed into only a skeleton of a man.

-E. Vargas

Night by Elie Wiesel is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded from Overdrive