I started reading The Book Thief last week, and then realised I needed to put it down for a while and break up my Nazi Germany reading. I feel like there’s been a lot of WWII strewn in my path recently, and it does start getting me down. When it comes to mining the Furher in fiction, where oh where are the fields full of flowers and gentle springtime frolics a la The Sound of Music? As much as the Von Trapps need a von slap, you have to give them points for skipping round the carnage sunny-side up. Not that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a WWII novel per se. Ostensibly it concerns itself with a little boy trying to make sense of his father’s death on September 11, 2001, half a century away from Hitler. But there’s a terrible parallel story told separately by Oskar’s grandparents, and yes, the war remains, throughout the novel, incredibly close.
The novel has been sitting on my shelf for months now. I bought it secondhand, and had intended reading it when it first came out back in 2005. Time and reading lists, they do so get away… I’d finished my Dorothy Parker biography, I’d done with Amsterdam, I needed more than Obama’s Audacity of Hope to get me through the night, so I whipped Foer off the shelf and got stuck in. I thought the precocity of the nine-year-old-child conceit would irritate me as the too-young voice in the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas irritated me (there’s nothing worse than adult writers underestimating child narrators), but it didn’t. I think the first few pages do creak on this front, but Foer very quickly finds the rhythm of Oskar’s speech, and very soon I was caught up in it, hearing the child’s voice very clearly and – even more important – believing it. Oskar charms everyone he meets throughout his adventure across New York, and he certainly charmed me. Maybe these meds are making me teary (or these pretzels are making me thirsty…), but this novel moved me to tears on several occasions.
There’s also, conveniently, a multimodal element to Foer’s novel that speaks to my own inclinations. Throughout the novel, photography is incorporated to powerful effect, as well as some hand-drawn colour pages (test sheets for pens and permanent markers) and marked-up corrections (red circles around typed text). The way these visual components interact with and extend the story proper is of great interest to me, and I think Foer’s done an impressive job weaving the different narratives and different modes of narration into a coherent and heartbreaking whole. I plain old loved the novel, but it did make picking up The Book Thief, similar in some parts of its experimentation, a little difficult. So I put it down and picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway instead, thus successfully forging a complete change of pace. It too is proving innovative – there are no chapters – and I’m starting to enjoy it after rather a shaky start. I was doing something that never bodes well: reading the same line over and over. And over and over. I’d come to, shake my head, grip the sides of the book and tell myself to focus, damn it, focus! It’s never good finding one’s mind wandering out of the world of the novel and into the next room…I wonder what’s happening over there… or there… Not ideal. But that drifting feeling seems to have passed, and I’m happy to report that Mrs. Dalloway is coming round for tea and cupcakes over the weekend and we’ll get much better acquainted then.
I know you’ll forgive me if I do just mention that my friend – the lovely Karina Machado – has just had her first book published, a non-fiction title called Spirit Sisters, which is a collection of stories exploring the paranormal experiences of everyday Australian women. I went to the launch last night in a bookstore on Clarence St, and it was packed. I only found out then that Karina was on one of the morning shows yesterday – Kerry Ann – with one of the subjects of the book, and I have to say, my gut feeling (even though of course I’m biased, Karina is one of life’s sweetest cherubs and I want her to take over the world) is that this book will go gangbusters. It’s a catchy title, it’s got a really appealing, intriguing cover, and the fact is, most women I know do have a latent curiosity about this sort of stuff even if they’d never ever come out and say in company that they “believe” (I am including myself here). I don’t know if I do believe, but I know the idea of ghosts and spirit life fascinates me. Not enough that I pursue it in any measurable fashion, but enough that I sit forward and listen up if a friend tells me the strangest thing happened… I love the possibility. It’s frightening and comforting in equal measure. Has anything remotely paranormal ever happened to me? Not that I don’t think of as simply the dreams of a child with an overactive imagination. Just dreams, nothing I have seen as an adult or in daylight. So I don’t “believe,” but that doesn’t lessen the shivery pleasure of allowing myself to wonder. And I know I’m not alone – I expect Karina’s book to fly off the shelves, but I very much doubt a poltergeist will come forward claiming responsibility.