As I said in the last review, Markus Zusak/Death has basically laid out a blueprint for the closing of this part, so what will be interesting in reading these four is to see how Zusak plays with my expectations and how he fills in the gaps in what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

Some information I admittedly am not supposed to know at this point, such as the fact that Liesel will be stealing from the Mayor’s library, which I read on the back cover. This could be intuited, however, by the fact that every part is named after a book important to it, and this part, titled “the whistler,” opens with the image of a book floating in the river in December 1941. I have most of the events of the final chapter worked out in my head. Viktor Chemmel will steal the book from Liesel and throw it in the river out of revenge, and Rudy will go in to rescue it. Why, however, Liesel and Rudy will be stealing this particular book, and what happens in between these two events, is yet to be discovered.

Before diving into any of that, however, Chapter 5 of Part Five opens with

SKETCHES

As much as I feel more positive about this chapter than I was about the last,
I have to start this review off with a criticism.

If the summer of 1941 was walling up around the likes of Rudy and Liesel, it was writing and painting itself into the life of Max Vandenburg.

I know this is obviously an attempt at another metaphor by Zusak, but I have read this over several times and have no clue what it means. It could mean that the summer is closing in on them and appearing to be more threatening now, but the choice of words is still, frankly, confusing, and that’s as best as I can work it out.

This may not be important, however, because this chapter does return to one of the important themes in the book, the power of words:

In his loneliest moments in the basement, the words started piling up around him. The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.

This time, Zusak puts an emphasis on how those words can be transformed not into visual metaphors that create a picture in your head, but literal sketches. Obviously, we have already seen something similar in The Standover Man, but the two sketches we see differ in that they do not add up to tell a cohesive story necessarily, but rather are an exercise in surrealism and visual imagery. They are so surreal, however, that I’m grateful Zusak does give some insight into Max’s thought process in creating them:

It was a collection of random thoughts and he chose to embrace them. They felt true. They were more real than the letters he wrote to his family and to his friend Walter Kugler, knowing very well that he could never send them. The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another.

While Max is asleep, Liesel comes down and finds the book leaning against him and glimpses 2 of the sketches. The two we see are so strange and disturbing that I am glad Death did explicitly mention that they were representations of Max’s own experiences, because otherwise they appear to simply be exercises in surrealistic black comedy. The second sentence quoted here, however, offers another parallel between Max and Liesel that I am glad Death doesn’t spell out this time. Liesel was able to write letters to her real mother in the hope against hope that she might receive them, while Max writes letters to his family knowing that he can never even send them, as long as the war is ongoing.

But as to the sketches, both occupy a full page and the first one shows an actually fairly detailed pencil sketch of Hitler standing on top of his podium appearing to lead a crowd of onlookers seen only from the back in a Nazi salute, except that a speech buble comes from Hitler’s mouth containing musical notes. The subtitle underneath reads “Not the Führer- the conductor!” The implication here is strange, but appears to be that Hitler used his words like music to entrance the German public, which is what led Max to be persecuted.

The second sketch shows two figures standing atop a large clump of dead bodies with one, a girl, saying “Isn’t it a lovely day…” as they stare up at a sun which flashes both its rays and a swastika at them. This one, despite being yet more surreal, is easier to interpret, as the two figures are likely intended to represent Max and Liesel, who cling to the small pieces of happiness and joy that come their way, despite the fact that they live in Nazi Germany, in the middle of a war that leaves more and more bodies piling up every day.

Liesel, on the other hand, is a bit too young to grasp the intricacies of black comedy, which is why Max never intended to show the sketches to her at this age, and the chapter ends when Liesel hides from an awakening Max the fact that she was reading the book and goes up the stairs thinking:

You scared me, Max.

This probably is not meant just to illustrate Liesel’s lack of understanding of black comedy, though, but rather the fact that at her young age she is unwilling to even admit that they are finding joy in a world filled with great horror or perhaps even to admit that their world has been so overtaken by horrors. The sketch is important, though, in that it represents what Liesel and Max really are doing, and the horrifying reality is that there is actually nothing wrong with that, except for the sad truth that these precious nuggets of happiness will likely grow harder and harder to come by as the war goes on.

THE WHISTLER AND THE SHOES

Death begins this chapter by acknowledging that all the events that have been described in this part form part of a cycle, or routine, and thankfully summarizes it to get to the point where the routine is finally broken:

It’s also worthy of mention that every pattern has at least one small bias, and one day it will tip itself over, or fall from one page to another. In this case, the dominant factor was Rudy.

This is an interesting theory, although in this case it seems clear that the reason Rudy will soon be more important to the narrative is to add more development to his character, since he has been marked to die.

Death again paints a picture of Rudy wandering down Himmel Street filthy,
having been forced to perform extra Hitler Youth drills in a field, this time carrying his shirt which has been covered in not mud this time, but rather…

“The field at Hitler Youth just got fertilized.” He gave his shirt another halfhearted, disgusted appraisal. “It’s cow manure, I think.”
“Did what’s-his-name-Deutscher-know it was there?”
“He says he didn’t. But he was grinning.”

I appreciate that Zusak is trying to show us that Rudy’s exploits at the Hitler Youth will become more important, but for now all this serves is a rather weak motivation for Liesel to get back into book thievery.

After a moment’s thought, he raised his head, just a touch. “Look at me. I’m filthy. I stink like cow shit, or dog shit, whatever your opinion, and as usual, I’m absolutely starving.” He paused. “I need a win, Liesel. Honestly.”
Liesel knew.
She’d have gone closer but for the smell of him.
Stealing.
They had to steal something.

This seems so childish and petty the only thing that comes close to redeeming it, apart from the fact that Liesel and Rudy are children, is the fundamental innocence and weakness of these two characters, especially at this moment in time.

One of my commentators attempted to defend Liesel and Rudy for stealing in the past by arguing that they only committed their crimes out of “a desire to control something” at an age and in a place where they would otherwise have no control. This point in the book seems to illustrate that point well, but even though they hem-and-haw for nearly two pages about where to steal from and what to steal, it’s obvious this is always going to come back to Liesel stealing the book from the Mayor’s wife, despite having rejected it when it was offered to her.

At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?

I was hoping to get a lot more insight into Liesel’s thought process and her contemplations of whether or not to take the book than what we do get here, but the real problem is that the book treats it like it’s a real defining moment of Liesel’s morality. When really that moral turning point for her already came when she made the decision to castigate and shame the Mayor’s wife. What Liesel’s doing is indeed petty, but it’s not a petty act of revenge or even something hurtful. It’s a petty act of saying “Alright, changed my mind.” Nothing more and nothing less.

There is a brief fake-out where Rudy and Liesel get to the Mayor’s house and find the library’s window has been locked, and it appears Liesel’s plan for revenge will not come to fruition, but no. They steal nothing else, just come back a week later and the window is open. No time is spent on Liesel and Rudy trying to work out other ways to get into the house, and Rudy doesn’t even bring up the possibility of simply stealing somewhere else, even though he’s the one who came up with the idea of stealing something and he has no personal vendetta against the Mayor’s family.

No, the repugnant truth was this:
She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted.
 The Whistler. She wouldn’t tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

I’m trying to understand Liesel’s motivations here, and while incredibly petty, this at least makes some sense. I haven’t stolen much of anything in my life, so I can’t relate to this, but it seems her morality has been warped by the constant stealing for Berg (and now Chemmel)’s gang, as well as the two previous occasions on which she stole a book, which were approved of by Hans, so that now she believes stealing a book is the most pure form of obtaining one. It’s childish, and frankly a bit disgusting, but what really strikes me as abhorrent isn’t Liesel’s desire to steal, or even her selfish motivations that have nothing to do with helping her friend feel better, but the fact that she has such contempt for a woman for being depressed and emotionally scarred by the death of her son, and continues to project her own insecurities onto her. And I’m not sure if Zusak wants us to see it that way, either.

They laughed nervously for a moment before going through the motions of who should go in and who should stand watch. As the male in the operation, Rudy clearly felt that he should be the aggressor, but it was obvious that Liesel knew this place. It was she who was going in. She knew what was on the other side of the window.
She said it. “It has to be me.”

And now I don’t even understand what Rudy has to gain from this. The Hitler Youth plotline provided such a slim motivation for this plotline, but now it feels like there’s nothing. Rudy didn’t mastermind this plan himself, and he’s not even the one breaking in to commit the theft, so how would this be a much-needed “win” for him? He doesn’t even seem to understand why Liesel is angry at the Mayor’s wife or to know about the book she tried giving away, as he still insists she look for food and cigarettes (because in that time period, cigarettes were apparently worth so much they were only valued less than food?) and if Liesel had stolen either of those items, this would be truly petty and despicable, since it would be something the Mayor and his family might actually miss.

There is a brief description of the sense of nostalgia and joy Liesel feels despite herself upon being inside the library again, but this would be more effective if it hadn’t been only 4 months since she was last in there. The narrative then quickly shifts to an attempt at tension, as Liesel can’t find the book on the shelf, and Rudy warns her of footsteps coming from upstairs, but this is resolved in 2 paragraphs as she then sees the book lying on the Mayor’s desk, grabs it, and jumps out the window again.

Once Rudy and Liesel get safely away from the house, Rudy notices the book and realizes what Liesel’s real plan was, but he doesn’t even get the chance to be angry at his friend for tricking him before Liesel notices that he left her shoes at the Mayor’s house, so Rudy runs back to get them. This feels unnecessary except to paint Rudy as an ideal friend and grant him one small victory (albeit only one of correcting his own mistake), but it does admittedly provide us with, in my opinion, the only genuine moment of tension in this chapter:

The minutes were heavy while he was gone.
Darkness was now complete and Liesel was quite certain that a
 Watschen was most likely in the cards when she returned home. “Hurry,” she murmured, but still Rudy didn’t still appear. She imagined the sound of a police siren throwing itself forward and reeling itself in. Collecting itself.
Still, nothing.

It doesn’t last long, as Rudy soon returns with the shoes and tries again to extort a kiss from Liesel, but I really did feel like I was there with Liesel in the dark, experiencing genuine fear and tension about Rudy and whether or not their crime would be discovered. And I do genuinely like the rest of the chapter, now that the conflict has been resolved and it winds itself to a close. Zusak managed for the first time in a while to paint an image of a scene in my mind, and it genuinely feels like we’re seeing two real friends quietly having a conversation with each other. This passage, in particular, is a very nice human detail:

“Speaking of which, I think we’re both slightly in for it when we get home. You especially.”
“Why me?”
“You know-your mama.”
“What about her?” Liesel was exercising the blatant right of every person who’s ever belonged to a family. It’s all very well for such a person to whine and moan and criticize other family members, but they won’t let
 anyone else do it. That’s when you get your back up and show loyalty.

This is so beautifully true it really is a rare instance here of wonderful, human writing, and it doesn’t feel like Zusak, in fact. It feels more like a passage that, if modified, could easily belong to a much different writer like C.S. Lewis.

Zusak also paints a picture of Rudy from Liesel’s 3rd-person POV that describes how he has been growing and changing with age very vividly, reminding me of several of Rowling’s descriptions in The Casual Vacancy. It creates a much stronger portrait of him, in fact, than the literal “Portrait of Rudy Steiner, July 1941” we got earlier, and manages much more to imbue us with the sad realization that he will die before he has the chance to truly age, so that in a way Rudy is close now to being as old as he ever will be.

The chapter ends with Rudy and Liesel returning to their separate houses and reminiscing about the old days of last year when Berg was running their gang, and it really does feel like another precious pocket of humanity like the one we got with Liesel and Hans at the end of “The Gamblers,” and moments like this really are much needed.

As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

And yet I can’t help but feel that even if the Mayor’s wife had caught Liesel in the act of stealing her book, she would have simply frowned stoically and allowed (if not encouraged) Liesel to climb back out the window with it. Combining that with the fact that only one of the three stolen books would be missed, I hear Remy’s father in Ratatouille explaining to his son that “It isn’t stealing if no one wants it.” And the voice of another little rat shouting back, “If no one wants it, why are we stealing it?”

THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY BY RUDY STEINER

What’s strange about this book is how often it can seem like a series of vignettes loosely tied together, and this chapter in particular feels a bit like a short story detailing a few misadventures of Rudy. However, Death’s statement that Rudy was the “dominant factor” in the book’s pattern of events is now proving itself to be true as it becomes clear now this entire part has revolved around Rudy in some way, from the knowledge of his untimely death to his conflicts with Deutscher in the Hitler Youth and Chemmel in the apple-stealing gang, to his endless attempts to extort a kiss out of Liesel, all of which is tied together in these last two chapters.

The chapter begins with Death, as he often does, giving us a blueprint of the chapter to come:

***RUDY STEINER, PURE GENIUS***
1. He stole his biggest potato
from Mamer’s, the local grocer.
2. Taking on Franz Deutscher
on Munich Street.
3. Skipping the Hitler Youth
meetings altogether.

One problem I have with the scene to follow is that there is very little description, and the description we do get is confusing. Death throws us into the scene at Mamer’s with Rudy attempting to steal a potato with no physical description of the store to allow us to picture it. When the owner, Mamer, confronts Rudy over his attempted theft, Zusak writes that Mamer was “still holding Rudy by the collar” despite never stating he was holding him by the collar to begin with, and tells us 2 paragraphs later that he “held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other,” even though the last we had heard, “the potato was still in Rudy’s hands (he couldn’t hold it in just the one)” and Death never mentions Mamer taking it from him, which creates unseen jumps in time that are awkward and break up the narrative.
As for my thoughts on the section as a whole, there is brief tension as Mamer threatens to call the police on Rudy, but he is then forced to rely on pity to get him out of this situation, as he begs his schoolteacher to tell the grocer how poor he is to guilt-trip Mamer into letting him go. It works, and it’s another small redeeming moment for humanity, but what I found noteworthy is this line:

He was in the percentage of teachers at school who were not priests or nuns.

I felt a bit guilty for being hard on religion when discussing the corporal punishment administered at Liesel’s school, but it seems clear that Zusak, despite keeping this book fairly neutral in terms of belief, as I mentioned earlier, seems to share those feelings of religious distrust. (The only other thing I found worth mentioning here was that Zusak uses the word “ejaculated” to stand in for “exclaimed”, which I didn’t think was possible for a writer to do any more, but Zusak might have chosen to use it due to the book’s period setting.)

And despite Death claiming at the start of the chapter that “the problem with Rudy’s first act was greed,” I think what this whole chapter of the story really illustrates is instead Rudy’s rebellious, impulsive and impetuous nature, and how it gets him into trouble as Rudy tries to secure petty victories to boost his self-esteem, only to inevitably end up digging himself further and further down.

Death sums this misadventure of Rudy Steiner up well:

For Rudy, it was yet another failure.

From there, the narrative moves to Rudy’s second act of stupidity, with Death spoiling for us that he “would finish this particular altercation with a black eye, cracked ribs and a haircut,” which shows his luck will not be improving, obviously, but braces us for what is to come. The incident Death describes first with Rudy in the Hitler Youth seems to further my theory that Rudy’s problems are mostly caused by his rebelliousness, however, when Deutscher asks him the Hitler Youth’s favorite question:

“When was our Führer, Adolf Hitler, born?”
Rudy looked up. “Sorry?”
The question was repeated, and the very stupid Rudy Steiner, who knew all too well that it was April 20, 1889, answered with the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.

What’s worth noting is that Rudy, unlike Liesel, has no personal reason to hate the Nazi regime at this point, so the book isn’t trying to show a 13-year-old as being better than his time, which I appreciate, as it’s clear this act of rebellion is motivated by his disdain for Deutscher, not Hitler himself. Which is further drilled in when we get to Rudy’s actual “second act of stupidity”:

On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FUCKING SERIOUSLY. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

But in all honesty, even for an act of stupidity, this act is so shocking and blatantly pointless that Death himself again interrupts to respond to me:

You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutscher gave him the urge to destroy himself.

Well, yeah, no shit, Sherlock… but this honestly is one of the few moments it felt like Zusak was deliberately making a character act in a certain way just to create conflict, rather than as something that grew organically out of the narrative. However, given Rudy’s established impulsive and rebellious nature, combined with the fact that he is 13, I’m willing to excuse this, and what’s important is not only does this fail to secure a “win” for Rudy, it also results in his worst humiliation yet. As you could imagine, Deustcher doesn’t take too kindly to this, so he responds by savagely attacking Rudy, throwing him into the pavement three times, giving him the aforementioned black eye and cracked ribs. Unlike the earlier scene where Liesel beats up the two boys, there is nothing fun or gratifying about reading this, and it’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes to read in the whole book, especially if you imagine Deutscher is a few years older than Rudy, yet he still has no problem beating the fucking shit out of him as if he’s even a fair match. There’s even a moment where he pulls a knife on Rudy, and even though we know Rudy will only receive a haircut and he won’t die for another 2 years, it’s still only natural to expect the worst. And Deutscher concludes this humiliation by asking Rudy the question of Hitler’s birthday again:

And Rudy?
How did he reply?
Did he respond prudently, or did he allow his stupidity to sink himself deeper into the mire?
He looked happily into the pale blue eyes of Franz Deutscher and whispered, “Easter Monday.”

This again brings me back to the meditation on cowardice earlier in the book, as this is one of the few stupid acts committed by Rudy that could be considered genuinely brave, as he refuses to allow Deutscher the satisfaction of giving in to him. Deutscher has given Rudy the only position of power he can have, the power to defy him, and Rudy is more than willing to take it, and yet just as Hans only survived WWI due to his aforementioned “cowardice”, one can’t help but feel the sane, sensible reaction in terms of self-preservation would be to simply give Deutscher the complete satisfaction that he wants, but instead Rudy gets a haircut in addition to his humiliation and Zusak makes an annoyingly unnecessary parallel of this haircut, as an act of forced humiliation by an enemy, to the haircut Max received from Liesel earlier in the year, as an act of genuine friendship (unnecessary in that again the audience is more than capable of making this parallel ourselves).

As for Rudy, so far this year he’d swallowed mud, bathed himself in fertilizer, been half-strangled by a developing criminal, and was now receiving something at least nearing the icing on the cake-public humiliation on Munich Street.

Seriously, at first, it may have been shocking that Rudy died so young, but now I can’t help but feel he was lucky to make it this long. Is he really going to survive another TWO YEARS????? Because I have made it my whole life without experiencing any of those things (with the possible exception of public humiliation).

The chapter does, however, manage to leave Rudy on a bit of a positive note, as his third act of stupidity, skipping the Hitler Youth meetings, turns out to be the only one of these acts to exhibit any common sense or leave him in a better position. (“It was the one time in his life that his idiotic behavior delivered beneficial results.”) True, it’s a dangerous thing to do in this time period, but it also ensures he will avoid being in this stressful environment and risk any more hostile interactions with Deutscher. And ultimately, his brother convinces him to join a different division of the Hitler Youth, which teaches aircraft and flying, and the chapter ends with the suggestion that Rudy has experienced some genuine character growth, and in addition to being in a better place, is beginning to mature and accept what he can and cannot get away with:

In his new division, whenever he was asked the famous Führer question, Rudy would smile and answer, “April 20, 1889,” and then to Tommy, he’d whisper a different date, like Beethoven’s birthday, or Mozart’s, or Strauss’s. They’d been learning about composers in school, where despite his obvious stupidity, Rudy excelled.

It helps he doesn’t have a figure like Deutscher to challenge him here, but the last sentence adds a layer of depth in suggesting the difference between book smarts and street smarts, Rudy perhaps possessing more of the former than the latter, something I have to admit I can relate to myself.

THE FLOATING BOOK (Part II)

So now the part ends, right where it began, as you can tell from the title. And I honestly have little to say about this chapter, because everything mostly plays out exactly as I had predicted it would. The opening sentence even mentions that it is December, and Rudy will finally secure a victory, so it’s pretty clear what will happen next.

Liesel and Rudy are going home from school, and there is a small bit of misdirection as they have to avoid Franz Deutscher, but it’s pretty clear there’s not much more he can do to Rudy after having beaten and humiliated him in public already, so this isn’t too convincing, and…

With no further words, Liesel followed him, and they successfully avoided Rudy’s tormentor-straight into the path of another.

They predictably run into Viktor Chemmel and his group on the bridge, and one complaint I have about this is that the action doesn’t feel like it’s playing out naturally. We know everything that is going to happen, and the characters seem to basically act as marionettes, being pulled around by invisible strings and made to do exactly what Zusak wants them to and be exactly where he wants them to be. How likely is it, really, that Viktor and Deutscher would both randomly be wandering around Molching within the same vicinity of each other on the same day, for instance? It’s possible, but it feels contrived.

Viktor greets them by randomly calling Liesel a whore again (big surprise) and taking the book. He offers to sell it back to them for fifty marks, but as Andy Schmeikl points out, they could buy any number of books for that amount (including the same one he took) so this extortion attempt is beyond idiotic. He could also point out that Liesel and Rudy probably don’t have that much money even if they wanted to give it to him, but he doesn’t.

“Did I ask you to speak?”
Andy kept quiet. His mouth seemed to swing shut.

Markus Zusak, have you ever heard this saying before? “If you want respect, you must give respect to get it.” If this whole group is so spineless and cowardly they’re willing to acquiesce to the every demand of this rich prick who gives them no respect, how are they effective thieves who are willing to risk being chased by angry farmers with axes, anyway?

Liesel tried a poker face. “You can keep it, then. I’ve already read it.”
“What happens at the end?”
Damn it!
She hadn’t gotten that far yet.

Well, neither has Viktor, so I’m sure any lie she could come up with would sound convincing, but it doesn’t really matter. For as much as Zusak built up Viktor’s patience in getting back at Rudy, it seems clear he had no plan of exacting revenge against him at all, and spent none of those five months formulating one. He knows Rudy will be pained at seeing his friend intimidated and losing her book because of him, but that doesn’t change the fact that as Rudy points out, this act of revenge isn’t really against him at all, as it’s not his book, so Viktor is basically just impulsively being a prick. It’s not like the group is going to fall into submission after seeing Viktor take action against a person who didn’t question his authority. He’s just pointlessly harassing another member of the group who did nothing against him.

Stranger still is that Zusak never mentions Viktor and his gang leaving after he throws the book into the river, yet Rudy immediately runs down to retrieve it without even waiting for them to go. Inexplicably, Viktor makes no attempt to go after Rudy and stop him from getting it, either. (Also, tearing the book up and throwing the pages in one-by-one would have been more effective, and more of a prolonged punishment, as Rudy would have had to watch his friend’s prized property be destroyed for God knows how long.) He just vanishes from the narrative into a black hole, to wait until the next time it needs him to be a dick.

Another note of interest is that Rudy did not attempt to leave the devastatingly cold water as soon as he held the book in his hand. For a good minute or so, he stayed. He never did explain it to Liesel, but I think she knew very well that the reasons were twofold.

I would think the reason would obviously be to make sure Viktor isn’t hiding somewhere, waiting for the opportunity to ambush him and throw the book back in, but no. Zusak explains the real reason is he wants to revel in his victory and make himself appear pitiful and selfless, so Liesel will kiss him. But obviously she won’t, and Zusak does fittingly leave us on the tragic note he was building to all along:

He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.

That really is a good place to leave the book. I enjoyed this project (especially when I had readers) and I liked reading the book, too, and it’s possible I’ll finish the rest of the book on my own, but we’ve made it halfway through and I think ending on this note of dramatic irony is very fitting. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish the book if I keep dragging the project out, and seeing as how my readers have lost interest, I think it’s clear all good things must come to an end. To the few who enjoyed these posts, I say thank you. I hope you enjoyed revisiting the book as experienced by another person and getting to know my personality through my reviews. I don’t know if I will write any more reviews on here, but I say again, goodbye.

 

 

I started this project to review The Book Thief all the way back in March of 2014. However, after uploading my review of “I Read The Book Thief – Part Three, Chapters Five-Eight” back in August of 2014, I went on an abrupt hiatus for over half a year, and didn’t publish another review of the book for well over a year.

I started school shortly after August of 2014, so it is true that after that point I suddenly had a lot less free time on my hand, but there was still plenty of time when I was out of school and could have reviewed the book further. So the only real explanation for why my reviews became so infrequent is in this confession: I simply lost interest in the book.

I know there are many Zusak fans that will be horrified at me even saying this, such as Daniel, for instance. However, this is what I think is my explanation: Most of the book was building up to Max arriving at 33 Himmel Street, and it was foreshadowed almost from the beginning, so as soon as it did, all the tension went away.

Obviously plenty will disagree with this, but the problem for me is that this is the point where the book was supposed to start, but given the slice-of-life, relaxed style of the story, all that can happen at this point is that there will be a few tense moments where Max is at risk of being discovered and either eventually he will be or he will not be.

I also must admit that the novelty of the book has worn off for me, as I am now more used to the style and quality of the writing itself. In addition most of my readers have now lost interest and disappeared. I have decided, however, to continue a little bit further with the project, but it is likely I will not finish it.

So, without further ado, let us proceed into Part Five, titled “the whistler,” a book that Liesel had been reading in the Mayor’s library. So I think it is safe to conclude that this will be the book stolen from said library, which I now wish the back of the book had not spoiled for me.

The subtitle is

featuring:
a floating book – the gamblers – a small ghost – two haircuts – rudy’s youth – losers and sketches – a whistler and some shoes – three acts of stupidity – and a frightened boy with frozen legs

As much as I hate to say it, even these enigmatic titles don’t prove too intriguing for me, since I know the “small ghost” can obviously not turn out to be literal, and it will be explained how the other more interesting of the titles (involving “the floating book” and “the frightened boy”) come together, as soon as Zusak begins with

THE FLOATING BOOK (Part I)

As if Zusak is trying to once more pique our interest, he starts off this midway point in the book by giving us yet another glimpse of the future, this time December 1941. He paints a picture in our minds of Rudy retrieving the floating book in the Amper River and asking Liesel for a kiss. Death then finally does what I had feared he would do right from the very beginning. He gives us information about when a major character will die.

How about a kiss?
How about a kiss?
Poor Rudy.

*** A SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT RUDY STEINER***
He didn’t deserve to die the way he did.

That’s it, no ceremony. He just hurls it at us, as an unapologetic, baldfaced fact: Rudy is going to die in this book. A character we have grown to know and love will meet a horrible death before his time, and we have to read the rest of the book waiting for it to happen.

Zusak doesn’t even bother to switch up our expectations, and preserve a bit of mystery as to when Rudy will die, as the lesser writer Sara Gruen did in the prologue of Water for Elephants (there by not revealing who died or who the killer was). He predicts the reader’s initial impression and then refutes it in the voice of Death:

Preemptively, you conclude, as I would, that Rudy died that very same day, of hypothermia. He did not. Recollections like those merely remind me that he was not deserving of the fate that met him a little under two years later.

He then describes to us in vivid detail that Rudy will die when he is hit by a bomb, surrounded by a pile of rubble. Despite wanting Liesel to kiss him all his life, she will only give it to him after he is dead. And we are forced to feel the full tragic weight of this now, nearly 2 years before it will happen.

So we have to ask ourselves why Zusak has done this. Why is he giving us all this information now?

Perhaps it’s so we know this war will result in characters we have grown to know and love dying, even if Max somehow survives. Maybe it’s so that every time we read an interaction with Rudy and Liesel, we will already be aware of the future tragedy underneath. Maybe it’s simply to shock the readers, by doing what a writer is told never to do. All we can really do is speculate at this point. But Zusak does at least end the chapter on a nice note:

He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips.
Yes, I know it.
In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it, all right.
You see?
Even death has a heart.

This sounds like a profound and beautiful metaphor, but I’m not sure what it is really supposed to mean. Death took Rudy before his time, but he also had the heart to let him die with a friend, so he is not as completely heartless as he may seem. In real life, however, death can be very heartless to us, so this is more a moment for the fictional Death as personified in the narrative, but it may be true that we can find some solace and heart even in death itself, if we look hard enough. This is the closest and fairest interpretation I can make of it myself.

THE GAMBLERS (A SEVEN-SIDED DIE)

Zusak opens this chapter, however, by acknowledging his readers’ shock and possible outrage at having all that information spoiled for them, and attempts to justify himself by speaking literally to the readers, albeit through the voice of Death:

Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

This makes sense for Death, of course, since Death is evidently omniscient and knows all that will happen and how everyone will die, and sees no point in keeping it from the readers. But what Zusak is really trying to justify here is his return to an older form of storytelling. Shakespeare, for instance, opened Romeo and Juliet by telling us how it would end, that Romeo and Juliet would die and their death would end their family’s feud, because in those days, tragedies ended in death, and comedies ended in a wedding, and it was basically a given the titular characters in a Shakespearean tragedy would die, so the point was to intrigue the Elizabethean playgoers in watching the play to see how the star-crossed lovers would meet their demise.

He even asks us, if having given us all that information, we aren’t the slightest bit interested to see how it plays out.

Well, I am, to be honest, and I’m sure other readers were even more so than me, but there’s still the immediate issue of Max being added to the narrative and the tension of whether he will be discovered or not.

It started with gambling. Roll a die by hiding a Jew and this is how you live. This is how it looks.

So accordingly, the chapter is divided into seven vignettes of life in the Hubermann household, with the hidden Jew added to the family. These are separated by illustrated dice, that feature an added dot for every vignette.

The first one is titled “The Haircut,” which demonstrates that life is apparently so normal with Max now that the only passionate arguments Hans and Rosa have about it anymore are where the scissors are to give him a haircut, after he finally requests one. The vignette is cute, in how Max politely rejects Hans and Rosa’s help and asks Liesel to cut his hair, instead. That’s all this part ultimately amounts to, one more bonding moment between Max and Liesel.

The second “side of the die” is titled “The Newspaper”, and opens in May with Liesel reading the aforementioned The Whistler book in the Mayor’s library.

She looked up. She imagined herself walking over, gently tearing some fluffy hair to the side, and whispering in the woman’s ear:
“There’s a Jew in my basement.”
As the book quivered in her lap, the secret sat in her mouth. It made itself comfortable. It crossed its legs.

This is probably a realistic portrayal of the tension and conflict that would go on inside a 12-year-old asked to keep a secret of this magnitude, and it’s entertaining to read, but it also seems silly that the only apparent risk to Max being discovered at this point is one of the three people in Molching who know about him literally telling someone the secret. The book does, however, move on to something more interesting, having to do with the book that gives this part its title. The Mayor’s wife keeps trying to literally give Liesel the book every time she leaves the library, to which she refuses, and Death even explains:

If there was one thing about Liesel Meminger, her stealing was not gratuitous. She only stole books on what she felt was a need-to-have basis. Currently, she had enough.

So the question really does remain of how she will get to the point where she will literally be stealing the book, and how the hell it will end up floating in the river less than a year from now.

But then Liesel goes home to see Max, and the rest of the section is spent showing another way of bonding Liesel and Max have with each other. It shows how depressing Max’s situation continues to be, as he is never allowed out of the basement now that the summer is coming on, but he does have some consolation in that Liesel gives him newspapers regularly, and he enjoys reading them with her, as well as sharing her books. Zusak also spells out Max and Liesel’s relationship in a way I don’t really like:

Where Hans Hubermann and Erik Vandenburg were ultimately united by music, Max and Liesel were held together by the quiet gathering of words.

This just seems like the kind of analysis I wish Zusak would let the readers make instead of spelling it out. He also gives us some cute moments describing how Liesel thinks about Max, but we’ve already seen plenty of those, and I don’t know. Maybe this just isn’t that interesting to write about. It’s cute and touching to read to yourself when you can quickly pass through it and move on, but when you have to linger on it and attempt to analyze it, it just leaves you wondering how many of these moments we need to see before they become distractions.

The third one, titled “The Weatherman,” is more of the same, but it is also a bit sweeter and more genuinely charming. Max asks Liesel to describe to him what the weather is like outside, and Liesel gives him this description:

When she returned to the basement, she told him.
“The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….”

This visual description is silly and lackluster by Zusak’s standards, but it works because it is presented as a child’s description and Max even reflects that it could be nothing else. But I think it primarily succeeds because we get something charming and beautiful out of a tragic fact: Max has no idea what the outside world looks like anymore, and can rely only on his memories and imagination, so even a childish description like this while, not plausible, at least creates a fascinating mental image for him that’s in a way, better than if he were able to view the real thing.

On the wall, he painted a long, tightly knotted rope with a dripping yellow sun at the end of it, as if you could dive right into it. On the ropy cloud, he drew two figures-a thin girl and a withering Jew-and they were walking, arms balanced, toward that dripping sun. Beneath the picture, he wrote the following sentence.

*** THE WALL WRITTEN WORDS ***
OF MAX VANDENBURG
It was a Monday, and they walked
on a tightrope to the sun.

I can understand what Zusak meant about trying to include a treasure on every page. I still can’t help but reflect that even this scene could have easily been cut, but it does demonstrate the power of imagination, which is sometimes the only refuge we have from the cold, harsh realities of life.

The next vignette or “side of the die,” titled “The Boxer,” however, only illustrates the opposite, how our imagination can sometimes only make those realities worse or portray them vividly in the same style of hyperbolic fantasy.

This section is probably the most well-written and honestly well worth discussing. At first, it breaks from the few moments of happiness Max has and throws us into the aforementioned harsh realities of how he leads his everyday life. Most of his time is spent in boredom and isolation from the outside world, simply watching time go by and feeling the urge to disappear. Zusak then sets us into the main narrative of this section by showing the projects Max comes up with to occupy his time, primarily keeping his body in shape through a strict exercise regime.

As a teenager in Stuttgart, he could reach fifty push-ups at a time. Now, at the age of twenty-four, perhaps fifteen pounds lighter than his usual weight, he could barely make it to ten. After a week, he was completing three sets each of sixteen push-ups and twenty-two sit-ups. When he was finished, he would sit against the basement wall with his paint-can friends, feeling his pulse in his teeth. His muscles felt like cake.

Zusak really does succeed in creating empathy for Max, not just by describing his sad state of affairs, but also in making the reader imagine what it would like if this were their own life. He, then, however, shows what, in Max’s mind, all the training is building up to, and throws us into a vivid fantasy sequence.

“In the blue corner,” he quietly commentated, “we have the champion of the world, the Aryan masterpiece-the Führer.” He breathed and turned. “And in the red corner, we have the Jewish, rat-faced challenger-Max Vandenburg.”

It not only gives us a look into how Max’s brain works but also serves as an extended visual metaphor for the Jews’ persecution during this time period at the hands of Hitler. Zusak portrays this imaginary boxing match very vividly. What is truly sad is that while many people would fantasize about beating and humiliating their opponents, even in Max’s fantasies, the entire audience is against him, and the referee of the boxing match is openly in favor of Hitler and anti-Semitic.

There was only one round, and it lasted hours, and for the most part, nothing changed.
The
Führer pounded away at the punching-bag Jew.
Jewish blood was everywhere.

Apart from the rawness and brutality of this imagery, what’s depressing is that ignoring the fantasy it takes place in, it all reads as completely true. It makes you wonder, more so than Inglourious Basterds ever did, how this was allowed to happen, and how Hitler maintained the country’s support for so long. Zusak exposes this all too well, ending Max’s fantasy with a tragic twist. Max eventually gets the upper hand on Hitler, pummels him to a pulp, but rather than being a gratifying Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy sequence, Hitler appears to give up, but then even though he can fight no longer, he stands on the ropes and draws on the power of words, his sheer charisma, and the buried racism, hatred, and prejudice of the German people to summon the entire audience to come together and beat the shit out of Max:

“Can you see that this enemy has found its ways—its despicable ways—through our armor, and that clearly, I cannot stand up here alone and fight him?” The words were visible. They dropped from his mouth like jewels. “Look at him! Take a good look.” They looked. At the bloodied Max Vandenburg. “As we speak, he is plotting his way into your neighborhood. He’s moving in next door. He’s infesting you with his family and he’s about to take you over. He—“ Hitler glanced at him a moment, with disgust. “He will soon own you, until it is he who stands not at the counter of your grocery shop, but sits in the back, smoking his pipe. Before you know it, you’ll be working for him at minimum wage while he can hardly walk from the weight in his pockets. Will you simply stand there and let him do this? Will you stand by as your leaders did in the past, when they gave your land to everyone else, when they sold your country for the price of a few signatures? Will you stand out there, powerless? Or”—and now he stepped one rung higher—“will you climb up into this ring with me?”

This is one part of the book that rings true in its harsh reality. Hitler himself was not the only cause of the Holocaust, and for all his genocidal hatred and insanity, he never would have gotten anywhere if it were not for the underlying fears and distrust of minorities already brooding beneath the hearts of his citizens, which he merely took advantage of.

And so, as Max’s own fantasies turn against him once again, Liesel comes in to offer Max the only mild consolations she can provide, and Zusak ends the chapter by returning us to the reality:

Dark.
Nothing but dark now.
Just basement. Just Jew.

For all of Zusak’s optimism about humanity, he offers no comfort here and leaves the reader feeling like Max, abandoned in a dark corner, left to simply ponder and question the evils of the world.

The next section, titled “The New Dream: A Few Nights Later,” (despite taking place in the afternoon, not at night) throws a strange curveball into things, though, when Max tells Liesel about his fantasy boxing matches and Liesel asks the simple question of who wins.

At first, he was going to answer that no one did, but then he noticed the paint cans, the drop sheets, and the growing pile of newspapers in the periphery of his vision. He watched the words, the long cloud, and the figures on the wall.
“I do,” he said.

Is he saying this just for her benefit, because he can’t handle admitting the truth? Or is it because it will give him hope of beating Hitler eventually if he continues training? Is it because he has the freedom to even fantasize about fighting Hitler, rather than being held in a concentration camp by his government? The narrative leaves this strictly ambiguous, which I suppose is for the better.

The next section, titled “The Painters,” is yet more mysterious. We see Max doing something to rise his spirits by removing the pages of Mein Kampf and painting over them as part of a project to, in essence, remove the last vestiges of Hitler’s work and create something new and potentially beautiful. He even manages to enlist the rest of the Hubermanns in helping him with this, as well, and when Liesel is invited to help them, she remembers how Max described his fantasies and seems to become inspired:

Many months later, he would also paint over the cover of that book and give it a new title, after one of the stories he would write and illustrate inside it.
That afternoon, in the secret ground below 33 Himmel Street, the Hubermanns, Liesel Meminger, and Max Vandenburg prepared the pages of 
The Word Shaker.

This storyline seems to come out of nowhere, and the chapter never returns to it, either. I genuinely don’t understand where this is going at all, or what this Word Shaker book will be about, but from Liesel’s fantasy inspiration, it appears the book may contain some kind of moral vindication against Hitler and the Nazis. I’m interested to see where this will go.

But now the story moves to “The Showdown” and the aforementioned “seventh side of the die”. The extended metaphor of this chapter’s title is now fully explained. A die typically has six sides, so obviously for any die to roll seven sides… Well, I’ll let Death explain it.

You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die. You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come. You brought it into the room. The table could smell it on your breath. The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset. He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven-the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you. It lands. It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

This is another area of the chapter which contains genuinely great writing and it is also the only point where Zusak succeeds in creating genuine dread
based on Max’s presence in the Hubermann household:

Of no consequence.
That’s what you make yourself believe – because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come. You hide a Jew. You pay. Somehow or other, you must.

I’m willing to admit this legitimately had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen to either expose Max or start the chain of events that led to him being exposed. However, Death then when speaking again about Liesel’s recollections writing in the basement years later, admits the incident in this chapter actually had nothing to do with Max at all:

In the great scheme of things, she reasoned that Rosa being fired by the mayor and his wife was not bad luck at all. It had nothing whatsoever to do with hiding Jews. It had everything to do with the greater context of the war.

Well… yeah. That kind of goes without saying. And……. THAT’S IT? How is that some shocking “seventh side of the die”? Hell, they already lost all of their other customers already, so while sad and troublesome, this shouldn’t even be too surprising. So it’s just a shame that that writing, while great, seems to have been basically wasted already.

And the real climax of this chapter doesn’t even come when Liesel is ready to leave the Mayor’s house after reading once more and Frau Hermann (after finally nagging Liesel into taking The Whistler with her) gives her the envelope for Rosa that obviously means the laundry services have been canceled. No, the real drama comes afterwards, in Liesel’s reaction, which is very interesting to discuss. To be fair, Zusak does spend a lot of time carefully showing just how heartbroken and genuinely hurt Liesel is by this:

When the others had canceled, it hadn’t hurt so much. There was always the mayor, his library, and her connection with his wife. Also, this was the last one, the last hope, gone. This time, it felt like the greatest betrayal.
……
Liesel felt it now in the shoulders. The pain, the impact of final rejection.
That’s it? she asked internally. You just boot me out?

Liesel probably could have seen it coming, true, but I think on some level she saw Frau Hermann as something close to a true friend to her, someone she had formed a connection with, a “kindred spirit,” so to speak, in the words of Anne from Anne of Green Gables. And now said friend has cut off one of their last means of viable income.

It’s true, however, that when Liesel reads the letter, it is revealed that it was the Mayor’s decision to “terminate the services of Rosa Hubermann” and not his wife’s, and his reasoning is understandable, if not questionable and a self-serving political maneuver the likes of when George W. Bush decided to stop playing golf in the face of the war in Iraq:

For the most part, he explained that he would be a hypocrite if he maintained his own small luxuries while advising others to prepare for harder times.

This does make sense, though, in a way, even if as Liesel feels, it would help her family personally deal with harder times, and it is as mentioned, a political maneuver and a distraction from the fact that he’s a rich, powerful man who obviously has plenty of luxuries not afforded to the middle-class and lower, in any case. Zusak does highlight in several cases that Liesel’s anger is irrational, such as when she assumes the Mayor’s wife is being dishonest in offering to let Liesel come back to read (even though it’s doubtful she would make the offer if she were unwilling to keep it), and when she accuses Frau Hermann of giving her the book as an act of pity, even though she had been offered it many times beforehand.

Liesel is right to be angry, but there is also an open layer of resentment towards the privileged upper-class, which we hadn’t really seen from her before, and stands in contrast to Max, who only resents himself for exploiting the Hubermanns’ middle-class privilege.

I will also admit that on a personal level, I strongly dislike scenes in media where a character suddenly has an irrational outburst at someone and tells them everything that they have kept bottled up inside (this occurs once in Water for Elephants). It is usually unconvincing and only an act of manufacturing conflict, but that isn’t entirely what happens here, to be fair. Liesel does lose control and snap at the Mayor’s wife, but not impulsively, only as part of a deliberate decision, albeit one motivated and driven by temporary rage. She even gets all the way to the end of Munich Street before storming back and pounding on the door so she can confront the woman, first only expressing anger at having their income cut off abruptly and giving her only a book in return, but then she soon takes it farther:

The injury of words.
Yes, the brutality of words.
She summoned them from someplace she only now recognized and hurled them at Ilsa Hermann. “It’s about time,” she informed her, “that you do your own stinking washing anyway. It’s about time you faced the fact that your son is dead. He got killed! He got strangled and cut up more than twenty years ago! Or did he freeze to death? Either way, he’s dead! He’s dead and it’s pathetic that you sit here shivering in your own house to suffer for it. You think you’re the only one?”

Liesel is so harsh here that Zusak immediately takes the time out to show us that these words are motivated by Liesel’s own repressed feelings of loss toward her dead brother. He even uses the spirit of Liesel’s brother appearing to her on the porch as visual symbolism, and the scene in general is described very vividly. We can practically feel the venom in Liesel’s words and the hurt in Frau Hermann’s speechless and stunned face. And as Zusak describes Liesel metaphorically throwing her brother down the steps, and his subsequent disappearance, I could picture it very clearly in my mind, and hear the sound of Liesel throwing The Whistler back down on the cement for Frau Hermann to retrieve.

I expected to be much harsher on this scene, but in the end, I’m willing to leave it open to debate as to whether it’s well done or not. The purpose is obviously to illustrate Liesel discovering the power of words to harm others, and she has shown this kind of anger before, both in beating up the two boys and in expressing her hatred of Hitler, and it does go a long way in explaining why Liesel would be angry enough to steal from this woman later on.

The following scene, also, is one of my favorite parts, when Liesel tells Rosa what has transpired:

“It was my fault,” Liesel answered. “Completely. I insulted the mayor’s wife and told her to stop crying over her dead son. I called her pathetic. That was when they fired you. Here.” She walked to the wooden spoons, grabbed a handful, and placed them in front of her. “Take your pick.”
Rosa touched one and picked it up, but she did not wield it. “I don’t believe you.”
Liesel was torn between distress and total mystification. The one time she desperately wanted a
 Watschen and she couldn’t get one! “It’s my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mama said, and she even stood and stroked Liesel’s waxy, unwashed hair. “I know you wouldn’t say those things.”
“I said them!”
“All right, you said them.”

XD No, seriously, I know this moment provides vital character development for Rosa (she starts off the scene numb rather than angry and eventually dumps the wooden spoons out on the floor), but that doesn’t change the fact that it reads like a scene from The Simpsons. Try reading it with Bart and Marge Simpson (or Lisa and Homer) in your mind instead, and tell me it isn’t flat-out hilarious.

There are a few more moments of character development for Liesel before the chapter ends. She goes down into the basement and starts joining Max in his exercise regime, taking her first lesson in push-ups from him that night. This is something I can relate to on a personal level, as I am underweight and not only have I been encouraging myself to practice push-ups lately, I went to the gym every week when I was in school as part of a fitness program set up by the English teacher. I’m only mentioning this to give some insight into my personal connection with the material, and what’s interesting in terms of the story is that it shows Liesel wants to become stronger physically, not just mentally, as if that will help her deal with these troubling times.

The chapter ends with a very nice scene between Liesel and Hans.

Somehow, Hans Hubermann always knew what to say, when to stay, and when to leave her be. Perhaps Liesel was the one thing he was a true expert at.

I’m quoting this bit only because we haven’t seen Hans for a while, and I have to admit that as much as I may have lost interest in this book, I can never get sick of Hans Hubermann.

But the moment between Liesel and Hans, and the way in which he comforts her, is actually quite serious.

“Papa,” she whispered, “I think I’m going to hell.”

Liesel has shown little guilt for the way she spoke to the Mayor’s wife up to this point, and it’s strange to see her suddenly experiencing fear of the afterlife, when this book has been pretty religiously neutral so far and we haven’t seen too many religious thoughts from her up to this point, and beatings in Catholic schools aren’t the kind of experiences that inspire strong belief in God.

It is a question many children ponder, though, and to be honest, I myself had that fear when I was younger than Liesel, and even had trouble sleeping at night because of it. When I told my father, he was exasperated and furious, telling me that I was not going to Hell because there was no such place and it made him angry because the concept of Hell was specifically invented to scare people like me into doing what the Bible wanted me to. Hans is much more gentle by contrast, simply telling Liesel that she won’t be going to Hell. This may offend some Christians in the certainty of his answer, but it’s simple, and exactly the right answer to give Liesel at that moment of utmost vulnerability, and I appreciate that the chapter ends on this note of real tenderness between them.

RUDY’S YOUTH

Interestingly enough, a character who has even been more absent from the narrative lately is the same one presaged to die young, Rudy Steiner. So it’s fitting that Zusak decides to devote the next chapter to him.

The chapter opens in medias res by giving us

*** A PORTRAIT OF RUDY STEINER:***
JULY 1941
Strings of mud clench his face. His tie
is a pendulum, long dead in its clock.
His lemon, lamp-lit hair is disheveled
and he wears a sad, absurd smile.

Giving us a portrait of his life at this point obviously is intended to take on a sad significance, since we now know he is only 2 years away from death. So while it is a relief to see him again now, it is alarming to wonder what led him to be covered in mud and have his hair disheveled. The scenario then gets yet more confusing as Zusak describes Rudy standing near a step saying “All is shit.”

Zusak, then, however, backs up to explain what led to this moment and what Rudy has been doing for the past few months that he was absent from the story for.

In the first half of 1941, while Liesel went about the business of concealing Max Vandenburg, stealing newspapers, and telling off mayors’ wives, Rudy was enduring a new life of his own, at the Hitler Youth.

This chapter’s title has a double-meaning in a way, as it refers both to Rudy’s literal youth and to the fact that one of his experiences in his Hitler Youth group is described in this chapter.

If only Tommy Müller hadn’t disappeared for seven hours on one of the coldest days in Munich’s history, six years earlier. His ear infections and nerve damage were still contorting the marching pattern at the Hitler Youth, which, I can assure you, was not a positive thing.

This passage contains another continuity error from Zusak: When Tommy Müller is introduced in Part One, Rudy informs Liesel that “When he was five years old, he got lost at the markets on the coldest day of the year. Three hours later, when they found him, he was frozen solid…” Only three hours, not seven. I realize this is, of course, nitpicking, and it’s possible Rudy simply got this detail wrong, but I always feel tempted to point details like this out when I notice them. Also, I legitimately don’t know what to say about this chapter, because it feels so completely inconsequential. All that happens from here is that after Tommy Müller’s hearing problems keep disrupting the march, the leader gets pissed off at him, and Rudy sticks up for Tommy and is punished by being forced to run laps, perform drills, and throw himself in the mud. Rudy and Tommy then go back to Himmel Street, where Rudy tells Liesel the story, the in medias res opening now makes sense, and he tries to get Liesel to kiss him again using pity. Obviously, she refuses, which of course is a harsh blow to us now that we know when she finally will kiss him.

It seems like the only purpose of this chapter is to show how harsh and strict the Hitler Youth organization is, and to show Rudy performing a good deed for someone, so that when he dies, we won’t simply fixate on his stealing from Otto Sturm and nearly disabling him. Other than that, there’s not much to discuss, and the chapter genuinely feels like filler. It does, however, end with a weak segue into the next chapter:

She also realized it was most likely those sodden days at the Hitler Youth that had fed his, and subsequently her own, desire for crime.
After all, despite the usual bouts of rain, summer was beginning to arrive properly. The
 Klar apples should have been ripening. There was more stealing to be done.

THE LOSERS

I was not looking forward to this, and as much as I hate to end this review on a negative note, I have to say it: this may just be the worst chapter in the book.

The last time we heard of our friendly group of apple-thieving delinquents, the leader, Arthur Berg, had moved away to Cologne, which means that when Ludwig Schmeikl’s brother invites them to the river to meet and discuss their new plans for theft, the group will be under new management.

“So are you the leader now?” Rudy had asked, but Andy shook his head, heavy with disappointment. He clearly wished that he had what it took.

Why doesn’t he have what it takes? He observed Arthur’s leadership for a long time, the other members of the group all know him and trust him. And most importantly, they know that he’s one of them and can relate to him, as opposed to

***THE NEW ARTHUR BERG***
He had windy hair and cloudy eyes,
and he was the kind of delinquent
who had no other reason to
steal except that he enjoyed it.
His name was Viktor Chemmel.

Markus Zusak is violating one of the cardinal rules of writing in this chapter: Show, Don’t Tell. Before we have ever met Viktor or read a line of dialogue spoken by him, we already know what to think of him because Zusak just told us. Also, I know this is solely personal opinion, but the visual descriptions are getting worse, as Zusak seems to be forcing them more and more. We don’t know what color his hair and eyes are, and when I try to imagine cloudy eyes, I just imagine someone whose pupils are dilated or rolled back in their head due to some type of brain injury.

Unlike most people engaged in the various arts of thievery, Viktor Chemmel had it all. He lived in the best part of Molching, high up in a villa that had been fumigated when the Jews were driven out. He had money. He had cigarettes. What he wanted, however, was more.

Then why are any of the lower-class, struggling-to-survive kids that constitute the rest of this group putting up with this little shit? Why would someone in Viktor’s social standing even socialize with people like Liesel and Rudy, and thus even know about this group? Zusak attempts to answer the question here:

At face value, Viktor Chemmel was clearly your typical teenage bullshit artist. Unfortunately, when he felt like revealing it, he also possessed a certain charisma, a kind of follow me.

But you know what? I’m not buying it. All Zusak gives as an example of this is one speech where he delivers meaningless rhetoric about “wanting more” that I’m amazed doesn’t provoke this band of thieves into rolling this rich punk for everything he’s got.

“So where are these two deviants you’ve been bragging about? It’s ten past four already.”
“Not by my watch,” said Rudy.
Viktor Chemmel propped himself up on an elbow. “You’re not wearing a watch.”
“Would I be here if I was rich enough to own a watch?”

Then how do you know what time it is, and why did you say that, Rudy? Also, this is an organization of thieves. Granted, under Berg they were apparently only supposed to steal absolute necessities such as food, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone practiced in thievery to break the honor code and steal a watch. Also, this group has been disbanded for nearly 9 months now, and none of these people have starved to death, so I refuse to believe that they desperately “need” the food, either.

Viktor then displays his charisma and ability to inspire loyalty in his followers even further by calling Liesel a whore for no reason and blowing cigarette smoke in her face. I swear, I am not even making up that last one. But it’s all right, because Zusak makes sure to inform us:

Liesel did not cough.

Which would be very very impressive if this were a Disney cartoon instead of a serious YA/adult novel. But no, apparently that’s supposed to show Liesel’s tough-as-nails, she is. Well, I would never consider myself to be a particularly tough guy, and I have never smoked a cigarette, either, but when I was in high school almost everyone else did, and they would sit outside smoking during break every day. I got so used to it that a girl I was talking to blew smoke in my face by accident one time while exhaling, and I just ignored it and we continued talking as if nothing had happened. And realistically, anyone living in 1941 Europe would be so continually exposed to second-hand smoke that NO FUCKING SHIT THEY WOULDN’T COUGH. WHO CARES? 

Zusak then attempts to justify yet again why the group is allowing Viktor to be in charge:

It was the same group as the previous year, the only exception being the leader. Liesel wondered why none of the other boys had assumed the helm, but looking from face to face, she realized that none of them had it. They had no qualms about stealing, but they needed to be told. They liked to be told, and Viktor Chemmel liked to be the teller. It was a nice microcosm.
For a moment, Liesel longed for the reappearance of Arthur Berg. Or would he, too, have fallen under the leadership of Chemmel? It didn’t matter. Liesel only knew that Arthur Berg did not have a tyrannical bone in his body, whereas the new leader had hundreds of them. Last year, she knew that if she was stuck in a tree, Arthur would come back for her, despite claiming otherwise. This year, by comparison, she was instantly aware that Viktor Chemmel wouldn’t even bother to look back.

Again, Zusak is Telling, not Showing. I never liked Berg much, either, and I think he only gave Otto back his basket and treated his group fairly to help justify his criminal behavior, but if he was so great, why didn’t he appoint someone else to take his place before he left, so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen? And ignoring this arbitrary definition of who “had it”, I again refuse to believe that this entire group, of which every other member has stayed, wouldn’t have met and selected someone else to be the leader in Berg’s place, instead of letting this rich prick nobody knew come in and push them around.

But just in case we hadn’t absolutely made our minds up how to feel about Viktor, Rudy flat-out asks Liesel if she likes him, right after he pointlessly calls her a whore again.

“Do you?”
Rudy paused a moment. “I think he’s a complete bastard.”
“Me too.”

I have to admit I’m more tolerant than most of characters who only exist in the narrative simply to be hated. But say what you will about characters such as Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter books or Gabe in the first Percy Jackson book, for instance, while those characters were underdeveloped and one-dimensional, the authors still showed us why we shouldn’t like them, instead of just telling us over and over again. And even when they didn’t, those were children’s books. This is supposed to be a serious YA novel that is aimed at adults, as well. I know most authors break the Show, Don’t Tell rule in some form, even legitimately great ones, but this is too much to ignore. This is crossing the line, and I’m sick and damn tired of it. Viktor Chemmel is an asshole. Viktor Chemmel is an asshole. Does everybody hate this character who has been created solely to be hated? Yes, so let’s move on.

The chapter ends with the group raiding an apple farm, only to find next to no fruit is blooming, and what is isn’t very high-quality. Liesel and Rudy are only given one apple to share, and this is the only time Zusak actually admits Viktor is partially justified in anything he does: “In fairness, the takings were incredibly poor, but Viktor Chemmel also ran a tighter ship.

But Rudy still decides it’s a good idea to challenge their new leader, because that won’t create friction within the group that has inexplicably not challenged him already, so Viktor actually obliges him.

“One lousy apple?”
“Here.” A half-eaten one was also tossed their way, landing chewed-side-down in the dirt. “You can have that one, too.”

Considering Rudy and Liesel are supposed to be desperate for food and the apple would be as good as new once the saliva and mud have been thoroughly washed off, this seems incredibly reasonable, but Rudy still insists on getting on their leader’s bad side, so Viktor resorts to physically attacking him, and in the end he almost strangles Rudy to death. After letting Rudy go, he calls Liesel a slut and Rudy spits blood and saliva at his feet (not at his face, mind you) before leaving. Viktor is so offended by this he vows to make Rudy “pay for that at a later date, my friend.

Say what you will about Viktor Chemmel, but he certainly had patience and a good memory. It took him approximately five months to turn his statement into a true one.

Well, Bertram Cooper waited nearly three years to take advantage of Don Draper being Dick Whitman, but that is incredibly patient for someone who just impulsively almost strangled the same person he’s threatening to death. But I think I have the blueprint for the rest of the chapter now:
Liesel and Rudy are going to steal the book from the Mayor’s wife for some reason, even though she tried to force Liesel to take it earlier, her motivations behind doing so the only bit of mystery left that does intrigue me. Viktor Chemmel will steal the book five months from now (December 1941) and throw it in the river, and the chapter will end with Rudy going in to retrieve it and asking Liesel again for a kiss we know he will never receive until he is tragically dead at the age of 15 two years from now.

I apologize to Daniel and all the other Book Thief fans for being so harsh in this post, but I have honestly tried to be as fair as I can for as long as possible. I don’t hate the book, and I still think Markus Zusak is primarily skilled at writing, and I will read the rest of Part 5 to see how the story actually does come together and attempt to review it, and I hope I can be more positive in doing so. To anyone who was offended by this, you can feel free to explain to me why I’m wrong in the comments.


Here are some examples of the increasingly strange and desperate visual metaphors in this chapter that I didn’t have time to mention there:

The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets and filled up the streets like a bath. (This makes me imagine a mysterious yellow fog taking over the town and somehow pausing to form a literal hand stroking the rooftops gently.)

…a sun that had broken through like God sitting down after he’d eaten too much for his dinner. (I genuinely don’t understand what this means.)

Jewish blood was everywhere. Like red rain clouds on the white-sky canvas at their feet. (But rain clouds are not typically red, so this metaphor is stretching.)

The words were visible. They dropped from his mouth like jewels.  (I don’t understand in what circumstance jewels would literally fall out of someone’s mouth, and this is very silly to picture.)

This one, however, is legitimately powerful and well done:

Grimly, she realized that clocks don’t make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was more the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth. It was the sound of a grave. 

There is also an extended visual metaphor of the Mayor’s wife physically beaten and battered after being verbally assaulted by Liesel, which is on-the-nose but disturbingly effective, and I haven’t made up my mind how to feel about it.

(Warning! This review includes detailed spoilers for the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds.)

I know I haven’t uploaded any Book Thief reviews for a while, but I thought it would be interesting to take a break from that for a moment to review, in contrast, a World War II movie, from one of the modern cinema’s most interesting directors, Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino is a director that many either love or hate. His films can either celebrate violence or simply portray it in all of its ugliness. His primary influences are a childhood spent watching spaghetti westerns and grindhouse/exploitation fare, and he himself has said in interviews that he feels violence is “very visceral” and that “violence is just one of many things you can do in movies. People ask me, ‘Where does all this violence come from in your movies?’ I say, ‘Where does all this dancing come from in Stanley Donen movies?’ If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.”

Obviously, there are many who do not agree with this sentiment, and some may wonder how he ever became acclaimed as a director and writer, but the answer is that he usually does portray violence within a fitting context and he typically knows exactly how to use it in a story to manipulate his audience’s emotions, as he himself has said. So for better or for worse, it was only a matter of time before Tarantino directed, wrote, and produced a war movie.

One of the criticisms leveled against Tarantino is that he is a copycat, ripping off any number of earlier films he used for inspiration in the process of building his own. In this case, Inglourious Basterds is clearly inspired by several earlier war movies, even to the point of stealing his title (albeit misspelled) from an Italian 1978 war film. And yet one must admit that there has never been a movie quite like this before.

One of the interesting things about the film is that it is filmed in 3 separate languages: English, French, and German (the latter two with English subtitles). This is a touch of authenticity that can be missed in many movies set in foreign countries, where we simply assume we are listening to a translation. Christoph Waltz’s character in particular is noted for being fluent in at least 4 separate languages (German, French, English, and Italian), and one of the best lines in the film comes at the expense of the Americans, when the German Bridget von Hammersmark asks the Basterds, “I know this is a silly question, but… can you Americans speak any language other than English?” (The answer is obvious.) The only instances where the characters’ bilingual nature seems contrived is when the French peasant in the opening is inexplicably fluent in English for no apparent reason, when we hear German soldiers speaking English to the Basterds, despite the fact that almost none did at that point in real life, or when the character Shosanna’s recorded message to Hitler is in English, despite the fact that she is never shown speaking the language at any other point in the film (although this was only added at Diane Kruger’s request). The beautiful moment when the British Hicox gives his cover up and resolves to “go out speaking the King’s” is also dampened by the fact he then uses “momentarily” in the American sense rather than the British, but this is a small nitpick, as most non-British viewers would never notice.

The film primarily follows 2 sets of characters, the Basterds and (eventually) their allies British Lt. Archie Hicox and German agent Bridget von Hammersmark, and the theater owner Shosanna Dreyfus and her unwanted admirer/stalker, Private Zoller, with the SS Colonel Hans Landa acting as an intermediary character who interacts with both sets and ultimately ties the film together.

The Basterds in question are a (mostly Jewish-American) Nazi resistance group, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt), who make a name for themselves by ambushing German soldiers and scalping and killing them, while leaving a lone survivor alive with a swastika carved into his forehead, to forever mark him as a Nazi and strike fear into the heart of Hitler himself.

The other set of characters is led by Shosanna Dreyfus (played by Mélanie Laurent), a young Jew who escaped the massacre of her entire family in 1941 to become the owner of her own theater in 1944 under a false name. She tries unsuccessfully to discourage the advances of Pvt. Zoller (played by Daniel Brühl), a German sniper who she dislikes primarily due to her distaste for the Nazis as a whole. He is the star of a Nazi propaganda film, and he arranges to have the premiere of the film held at her cinema, which will be attended by the highest German officials up to Hitler himself. So Shosanna decides to assassinate Germany’s political leadership, with the help of her lover and projectionist, Marcel (played by Jacky Ido), by igniting highly flammable nitrate film during the showing, and thus burning the theater to the ground with Hitler, Goebbels, among other Nazi higher-ups, inside.

However, little does she know that a British Lt. Archie Hicox (played by Michael Fassbender) has been assigned to just the same mission in cooperation with the Basterds and an undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger). They meet at a tavern in Germany, where in a very tense and drawn-out scene, they ultimately end up attracting the attention of a suspicious Sergeant and Gestapo Major due to Hicox’s unusual accent, and after Hicox unfortunately blows his cover, a shoot-out ensues which results in the death of everyone except Bridget, who Raine rescues and interrogates, and then makes arrangements with to continue the mission.

Surprisingly, the film turns out to be an alternate history in which both plans culminate in success, though Zoller forces his way into the projection room to talk to Shosanna during the screening, refusing to leave after she again rebuffs his advances. Shosanna eventually decides to shoot him when his back is turned, but with his dying breath, he manages to shoot and kill her, as well. Two of the Basterds then kill Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of the Nazi high command, then shoot up the theater before dying themselves when the bombs they set up in the theater go off and they are unable to escape, due to Shosanna and Marcel having locked the doors of the cinema.

The intermediary character is SS Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz), otherwise known as the “Jew Hunter,” a very charismatic, cunning, and seemingly cultured man who is introduced in another tense, drawn-out scene that opens the film, interrogating a French dairy farmer as to the whereabouts of a Jewish family that went missing in the area. Eventually, so that his own family will be allowed to live in peace, the farmer reveals that they are hidden beneath his floorboards, and they are all killed except Shosanna, who escapes. Landa turns up again as one of the Nazi officials attending the film premiere, where he discovers the Basterds’ plot, strangles Bridget to death, and then holds Raine and his Private Utivich in custody where he tells them he will allow their plan to succeed only if he is given full rewards and immunity from any and all war crimes he may have committed. The Basterds agree, but later double-cross him after the assassination attempt succeeds and Landa drives them into Allied territory. They kill Landa’s radio operator, and then carve a swastika into Landa’s forehead to show they still regard him as being little better than Hitler, even though he helped them end the war. The final line of the film comes from Raine, in what has been speculated to be Tarantino’s self-aware wink at the camera about his own work: “You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

If this is in fact an expression of Tarantino’s own feelings about the film, how is the audience to determine whether this boast is well-founded or not? I am reminded of a quote from another great director, Howard Hawks, given when asked to define a great film: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”

Inglourious Basterds is a film that contains many great scenes. The opening scene in and of itself is a masterpiece, opening so quietly and unassumingly we could almost forget we were watching a Tarantino movie. Christoph Waltz plays Landa masterfully, as a man who appears gentlemanly and companionable on the surface, but whose true self-serving, cruel nature is always evident. The actor who played the French farmer, Denis Ménochet, spoke almost no English, which is why most of his dialogue is made up of short sentences, but he still carries most of his performance simply through the look in his eyes and the expressions of fear, misery, and uncertainty that go through his face. Thus the tension is ratcheted up very slowly and carefully, and when we reach the payoff it is unsurprising and deeply sad.

The scene in the French bar is also a master-class in tension, executed differently as the conversation that begins it is so seemingly innocuous that it is not clear from the beginning where the scene is actually going. As it went on, however, my eyes were glued to the screen and my adrenaline was pumped up, yearning for a release. When said release finally comes, it is cathartic and shocking to watch. One feels few directors other than Tarantino would have had the audacity to massacre the entire bar, but so much tension has been building beneath the surface and for so long, that it feels like an effective way to resolve that. The real issue with this pay-off, though, is that it feels like pulp violence being played out, while the scene building up to it seems to come from a different movie altogether. I became so invested in the situation it is easy to forget we are reading subtitles, and when Hicox finally realizes and accepts he will never get out of this situation alive, lights a cigarette, and calmly lapses into English, it is a beautiful moment, and one feels so much respect for his courage that seeing him mowed down in the following wave of cartoony violence with the rest is a bit unsatisfying.

The whole storyline involving Shosanna and Zoller’s relationship suffers from the same issues, as well, but particularly in the payoff. For most of their interactions, it’s difficult to classify what genre their scenes seem to belong to. It cannot be romance, since Shosanna has nothing but contempt for Zoller and discourages his advances right from their first meeting, but Tarantino himself has said of their relationship: “…..there was something about Zoller. He really liked her. Everything Zoller did that ended up fucking her up and putting her in this situation, he did with good intentions. His biggest crime was liking her. I think of that scene as a romantic scene. It’s Romeo and Juliet. Those bullets? That’s them consummating their relationship. In any other time in the 20th century, they could have been in love. Except for that one time.”

Though by modern standards Zoller is certainly a stalker, it is difficult to truly dislike him until his last scene where he breaks into Shosanna’s projection room and tells her off for daring to spurn his affections. There is always something earnest and schoolboyish about him, even after we learn he killed over 200 men in the war, and Tarantino even gives him a moment of real humanity when he confesses to Shosanna: “And in this case, my military exploits consisted of killing many men. Consequently, the part of the film that’s playing now… I don’t like watching this part.”

How rare is it that any character in a Tarantino film expresses true regret for taking another human being’s life? And truly, even though Zoller’s storyline ends with violence, it does not feel like violence in a Tarantino movie, but rather the sad climax of a European opera: as we watch Shosanna’s flailing body blown backwards through the air as it is torn apart by bullets to the notes of Ennio Morricone’s “Un Amico,” there is a real element of tragedy to it. It seems to belong not only to a different film, but to a different dimension from the one the Basterds inhabit, and when we shift back to them preparing their implausible murder of Hitler it is, again, jarring.

Of course, the violence that the Basterds commit against the Germans is worth discussing because it is far more graphic and realistic than in any other Tarantino film I have seen. In the second part of the film (which is divided into 5 chapters), we see multiple scalpings and the throat of a Gestapo guard being slashed, and in the final scene, the camera lingers on Landa’s forehead being slowly carved open as he screams in agony. We know Landa is a selfish, sociopathic murderer, but when one watches this kind of suffering there is still a visceral reaction that no one deserves this.

What is stranger still is the question of whether we are supposed to enjoy any of this brutality. For all the film’s ambitions, all its grand heights of tension and for some of the great characters it does create (Hicox and Landa, for example, or Shosana and Zoller) and for how well the movie does tie all of its disparate groups of characters together (regardless of whether the tone of their stories fit), there is still the fact that all this 2-hour and 33-minute epic war film, Tarantino’s self-proclaimed “masterpiece in the making” amounts to in the end is a pulp revenge fantasy about World War II in which, as Roger Ebert put it, “for once the basterds get what’s coming to them.” Yet there are several strange hints, in fact, that we aren’t even supposed to enjoy the violence at all. One Nazi who is bludgeoned to death by a baseball bat shows genuine bravery, in refusing to give up information to the Basterds and steadfastly resigning himself to his death rather than betray the Nazi cause. There is even a strange scene in the climax where Hitler laughs at soldiers on our side getting killed in the fictional propaganda film right before the moment when he and his followers are killed in a moment Tarantino presumably expects us to be laughing our asses off at. It seems as if Tarantino assumed the audience would enjoy the Nazis getting killed so much that they wouldn’t mind how disturbing and bloody the violent was. Is he trying to suggest that the Basterds are no better than the Nazis for enjoying the slaughter of their side as much as they relished the slaughtering of the Jews? This makes sense, when it comes to the death and scarring of the German soldiers, since many were only soldiers and not even members of the Nazi party themselves, and our rational side knows that killing off random soldiers who were not responsible for the start of the Holocaust themselves will do nothing to save Jews or assuage their suffering, and that’s what keeps the revenge fantasy aspect of the film from working, apart from how disturbing the violence can be – but it’s hard not to get behind the idea of Hitler and Goebbels getting knocked off, since this will have a definite effect in ending the war and thus saving more innocent lives. But the real question is: If we’re not supposed to enjoy the Basterds’ killing after all and we are supposed to see them as no better than Nazis, then well, what the fuck is the point of all this, anyway? To shame us for enjoying movie violence Tarantino himself created? There is a word for that, and it is – bullshit.

But a lot of the film’s problems are in the characters, as well. As I said before, Tarantino has created some genuinely great characters. Landa in particular Tarantino himself claimed might be “the greatest character he has ever written”, but suspected may have been “unplayable” were it not for the talents of Christoph Waltz. We know now Waltz, though a gifted actor, can fall back on the same performance style, but this was the first film most Americans saw him in, and he truly is impressive. He perfectly captures the contradictions of Landa’s character – his charm, his intelligence, his sophistication, and then his cruelty, brutality, and opportunistic sociopathy. But the script itself betrays Landa’s character in ways that cannot be easily justified. When he murders Bridget in cold blood, it is a moment designed mostly for pure shock value, and to reaffirm that he is a vile, contemptible man who is not to be liked or sympathized with. At first, it appears he is acting to punish her for betraying her country, but when he proceeds to betray his own government in assisting the Basterds’ mission, this obviously is not the case, and in any case the moment seems to come out of nowhere. This could be excused, though. Bridget no longer serves any purpose in the plot, and it could be seen as Landa’s attempt to punish her for attempting to outsmart him in the way he cannot punish the Basterds, since he is about to make a deal with them, but what cannot be excused is the ending. Landa definitely deserves the swastika in the forehead, and it is effective poetic justice, but one thing that has been proven is that, while he is violent and brutal, he is also deeply intelligent in ways the Basterds, though equally brutal, are not. He knows who the Basterds are, says himself that he met and interviewed every survivor they scarred, and sees through their plan in the first place, not to mention he figures out where the Jews are hiding in La Padite’s house before he is ever told. There is simply no way he would not have seen this dirty trick coming and taken some precaution against it, particularly when it came to turning himself and his weapons over to them at the crucial juncture. While it’s satisfying to watch his confidence and control of the situation finally evaporate, it’s not real. Raine is a charming character in his own right, played well by Brad Pitt, but basically brainless, and the Hans Landa we’ve grown to know would never allow himself to be outsmarted and mutilated by some stupid Americans who only speak one language, for God’s sake.

The film originally was intended as a TV mini-series, but a friend convinced Tarantino to change it to a feature film, instead, so much of the story’s plot and backstories were cut, and one can tell. There is a strange inconsistency in how some characters get so much development – for example, Hicox, whose past and character the audience gets to know remarkably well for a character who is introduced midway through the film only so he can be killed off less than half an hour after we meet him – and yet the titular Basterds get next to no personalities at all, only one getting a backstory, and the motivations Raine himself has for leading this group and hating the Nazis so much are only hinted at through vague details such as his scars and comparisons of his battle plan to “an Apache resistance”.

There are things to like about the film, though. In addition to the things I’ve mentioned already, it has an interesting structure and it can be refreshing simply to see a film that is so different, but in the end, I believe the film does not come together as a whole, and while the film may have many great scenes, these scenes do not form a great movie. Inglourious Basterds feels as if it is Tarantino’s attempt to make a great movie that will define his legacy, but in my opinion, Django Unchained is much more skillfully made, simply in its simplicity. The movie has no grand pretense, but tells a story of slavery in a way that had not been done before and that next to no other white directors would dare tell. It is a simple revenge fantasy where we are supposed to root for the black hero and enjoy the slave-owners getting killed, but this is more justified in the movie’s simplicity, how Tarantino creates most of the antagonists as people Django has personal reason to hate and kill in his own right, rather than to somehow avenge the cost of slavery as a whole. True, the movie’s answer to whether we are supposed to enjoy the revenge fantasy-themed violence is a simple one (yes), but at least, it does answer the question well, and makes sure we are where Tarantino wants us to be in regards to enjoying it. It may just be a violent revenge fantasy, but it’s violent revenge fantasy done well and my favorite of Tarantino’s films, as well as being among my all-time favorites.

Inglourious Basterds might be worth watching simply for some of the spell-binding tension and some of the other good things I have mentioned, but in the end, the film is simply pretentious. There is no better word for it than that.


I know it’s been a while, but I will try to return to The Book Thief as soon as possible. In a sidenote: The website IHateFilm.com no longer exists, but Inglourious Basterds and Toy Story 3 were the only two films given five stars by the site’s creator. Really makes me look like an asshole, doesn’t it? 😦

I don’t suppose there’s any point in commenting on the long delay between posts at this point, so all I will say is that a lot has been going on in my personal life, a lot, too much to even begin to summarize and explain here, and to be honest, I almost forgot about reviewing this book. But things are finally back to as “status quo” as they’re ever going to get.

So the only thing to do is to say how glad I am to wash the bad taste of that J.K. Rowling miniseries out of my mouth. For once, I have some real enthusiasm for what I’m reviewing, so perhaps posts will be regular from now on.

The book has finally reached its central conflict, so to speak. The Hubermanns are a privileged German family whose lives are now going to be thrown into upheaval by the addition of one who is unprivileged to their lives.

And it’s only fitting that Death begins our next chapter by musing about simply why anyone would do that. In a world that can so often be dominated by self-interest and apathy, why would two people willingly make their lives so difficult?

LIESEL’S LECTURE

Exactly what kind of people Hans and Rosa Hubermann were was not the easiest problem to solve. Kind people? Ridiculously ignorant people? People of questionable sanity?
What was easier to define was their predicament.

*** THE SITUATION OF HANS AND ROSA HUBERMANN ***
Very sticky indeed.
In fact, frightfully sticky.

This is what I like most about Zusak’s writing, that he can make the most serious of situations seem humorous in the childlike simplicity of Death’s musings. It makes sense, too, as he finds humanity so difficult to understand that of course he feels the need to state things like this out loud.

When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you’re likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. Each plays its part, and each leads to a sneaking suspicion that a less than heavenly consequence awaits. The fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.
The surprising point to make is that despite this iridescent fear glowing as it did in the dark, they somehow resisted the urge for hysteria.

But what’s refreshing is that interspersed with complex metaphors, he also manages effective visualization through very simple descriptions like these:

She could only just make out the shape of Hans Hubermann’s tallness in the dark.
….
“Everything good?”
It was Papa again, talking this time to Max.
The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. Such was his feeling of shame. “Yes. Thank you.”

In any case, we get a vivid portrait of all of the central characters’ emotions as Max settles down to sleep in Liesel’s room for the night, and Liesel is kept awake simply trying to figure out what’s going on and how their lives will be changed.

Fittingly enough, after she, the titular character, was lost in the backstory and exposition up to this point, most of the chapter focuses on her and how she is introduced to these changes. She is kept home from school under the pretense that she’s sick, and after going through “a kind of bemused, inaugural silence” at the breakfast table, Hans calls her down into the basement and explains the situation. Details like this help us see the scene clearly through Liesel’s perspective:

“Liesel,” he said quietly, “I was never sure if any of this would happen, so I never told you. About me. About the man upstairs.” He walked from one end of the basement to the other, the lamplight magnifying his shadow. It turned him into a giant on the wall, walking back and forth…..
They faced the wall.
Dark shapes and the practice of words.

As humorously as Death stated the situation before, Hans now makes it clear just how little the consequences of what they’re doing can be treated lightly:

“Liesel, if you tell anyone about the man up there, we will all be in big trouble.” He walked the fine line of scaring her into oblivion and soothing her enough to keep her calm. He fed her the sentences and watched with his metallic eyes. Desperation and placidity. “At the very least, Mama and I will be taken away.”

And from there, Zusak marks perhaps his second instance of portraying Hans in a morally gray light, inspired by his need to protect Liesel and Max from the dangers in the world they live in.

He gave her a list of consequences.
….
“For starters,” he said, “I will take each and every one of your books – and I will burn them.” It was callous. “I’ll throw them in the stove or the fireplace.”

I like scenes like this because it shows that Hans, for all his kindness, does function as an effective authority figure when needs serve. It bothers me that Death keeps jumping over backwards in the narrative to defend Hans (Hans was clearly worried that he was on the verge of frightening her too much, but he calculated the risk, preferring to err on the side of too much fear rather than not enough. The girl’s compliance had to be an absolute, immutable fact….He was certainly acting like a tyrant, but it was necessary.), but it helps that the situation portrayed is genuinely heart-rending.

“They’ll take you away from me. Do you want that?”
She was crying now, in earnest.
“Nein.”

“Good.” His grip on her hand tightened. “They’ll drag that man out there away, and maybe Mama and me, too – and we will never, ever come back.”
And that did it.
The girl began to sob so uncontrollably that Papa was dying to pull her into him and hug her tight. He didn’t. Instead, he squatted down and watched her directly in the eyes. He unleashed his quietest words so far.
“Vertehst du mich?” Do you understand me?”
The girl nodded. She cried, and now defeated, broken, her papa held her in the painted air and the kerosene light.

The chapter ends with Death summing things up with that perfectly succinct childlike simplicity:

Everything was good.

But it was awful, too.

THE SLEEPER

This is another short chapter at only two pages long. But it provides a good bit of character contrast and delivers on the tone of its predecessor by taking us right back into the perspective of Liesel as she watches Max sleep for three days, regarding him as some sort of strange insect that has invaded their lives.

This is something I can relate to personally, because after my stepmother moved in with me it took me a long time to adjust and I would watch her speaking Khmer on the phone, reflecting that I never understood what went on in her mind.

The chapter then takes us into Max’s perspective, though, as we get a very personal look at his mental state:

Isaac. Aunt Ruth. Sarah. Mama. Walter. Hitler.
Family, friend, enemy.
They were all under the covers with him, and at one point, he appeared to be struggling with himself.

Zusak then brings these two perspectives together by illustrating once again how, in spite of all, alike the two really are:

Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared.

Not that this makes for a more pleasant encounter when they do inevitably come face-to-face.

The stranger reached out, his bed-warmed hand taking her by the forearm.
“Please.”
His voice also held on, as if possessing fingernails. He pressed it into her flesh.
“Papa!” Loud.
“Please!” Soft.

Not the best of first meetings, but things can only get better from here, right? As Hans interrupts the two, we get a tentative acknowledgment that these two will have to live together for a while:

Max’s fingers started cooling.

THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES

The book’s pace slows even further now as we get a glimpse into how everyday life with Max and the Hubermanns begins to function. The book’s perspective remains firmly on Max as he requests to live in the basement
to prevent any more conflict with Liesel and Hans helps him set a spot up.

The basement was the only place for him as far as he was concerned. Forget the cold and the loneliness. He was a Jew, and if there was one place he was destined to exist, it was a basement or any other such hidden venue of survival.

What’s worse is that, as it goes on, Max seems to be more and more self-loathing. Rather than resenting the Hubermanns for being privileged, he resents himself for being unprivileged and inconveniencing them. He almost seems to believe the propaganda Hitler spreads about him!

Thank you.

For Max Vandenburg, those were the two most pitiful words he could possibly say, rivaled only by I’m sorry. There was a constant urge to speak both expressions, spurred on by the affliction of guilt.

Zusak goes on, like a poet, delicately describing every facet of Max’s existential angst and inner desperation:

He wanted to walk out-Lord, how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to)-but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty.
To live.
Living was living.
The price was guilt and shame.

This book is so carefully constructed to make me feel like I am drowning in a dark underwater cave filled with darkness and misery where I will never be found. Zusak, you are a true poet of the sad. 😦
The book goes to Liesel’s perspective next, which is much less sympathetic:

For his first few days in the basement, Liesel had nothing to do with him. She denied his existence. His rustling hair, his cold, slippery fingers.
His tortured presence.

I can understand Liesel at first being scared of Max and then viewing Max as a curiosity, but now that she understands why he is there and has lived with him for a few days, it seems that she is simply being petty enough to resent him for inconveniencing their lives.

To be fair, even Hans and Rosa consider their best options for getting Max out of their lives, but to no avail (and Hans does patiently deal with his feces).

When Liesel is eventually forced to deal with Max, the detail that she finds most interesting about him is, quite naturally, a book.

When Max came out, he was holding Mein Kampf. Upon his arrival, he’d offered it back to Hans Hubermann but was told he could keep it.
Naturally, Liesel, while holding the dinner, couldn’t take her eyes off it. It was a book she had seen a few times at the BDM, but it hadn’t been read or used directly in their activities. There were occasional references to its greatness, as well as promises that the opportunity to study it would come in later years, as they progressed into the more senior Hitler Youth division.

Zusak also illustrates the basic problem that’s lingering underneath all this unease and awkward tension:

Therein lay the problem.
Life had altered in the wildest possible way, but it was imperative that they act as if nothing at all had happened.
Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.
That was the business of hiding a Jew.

A lot of books simply portray epic changes to the daily routine as something the characters can shrug off, as well. Living in a fantasy land you don’t know the rules for is apparently no big hurdle, but here we know that the characters don’t quite know what they’re doing. Something is going to go wrong. And we can sit through chapters and chapters of seeming tranquility, but we all know that somewhere along the lines a mistake will be made, and something bad is going to happen.

As time goes on everywhere everyone simply accepts the situation, and goes about their lives as normal, keeping it secret from everyone else in the process (including Rudy!). The more notable problem at the moment is that Helena Schmidt cancels her washing deliveries, so now Liesel and Rosa are only collecting laundry for the mayor and his wife.

We also know, of course, that Liesel will have a fallout with her and steal from the library, but for now she’s content to simply go there and read an especially disturbing book.

And luckily for Max, another book (the one Hans and Liesel have been reading) proves helpful to him when Hans arranges for them to read in the basement and discovers how bad Max’s situation is:

Slowly, then, the drop sheets were dragged aside and the emaciated body and face of Max Vandenburg appeared. In the moist light, he stood with a magic discomfort. He shivered.
Hans touched his arm, to bring him closer.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You cannot stay down here. You’ll freeze to death.”

So Hans puts his foot down with Rosa and convinces her to let Max into their bedroom every night to sleep by the fireplace and go back to the basement during the day:

A voiceless human.

The Jewish rat, back to his hole.

The reason behind this is mostly so they don’t have to keep the curtains closed all day to shield Max (which would raise suspicion), but I can’t help but wonder how much it has to do with Hans realizing the need to keep Liesel and Max apart. It’s implied he arranged for them to resume reading in the basement so the two would have to interact, but he must recognize they are not ready for that on a constant basis.

Again there is visibly no real surface conflict that must be solved. Tension does arise at Christmas when Trudy arrives and Zusak just defuses any tension by taking us through the holidays in 2 tiny paragraphs:

Christmas came and went with the smell of extra danger. As expected, Hans Junior did not come home (both a blessing and an ominous disappointment), but Trudy arrived as usual, and fortunately, things went smoothly.

*** THE QUALITIES OF SMOOTHNESS ***
Max remained in the basement.
Trudy came and went without
any suspicion.

In a way, I think this is disappointing. Zusak is obviously building up to another climax to end this part, but it would be a good exercise in tension if we were taken painstakingly through the whole process of preparing for Trudy’s visit and then the visit herself, with near misses, just to demonstrate how precarious the situation is. As Hans and Rosa ultimately decide, they can’t even trust their own daughter!

Liesel, however, starts to become less wary of Max, and the moment she starts talking to him, quite naturally for her, is over a book:

Occasionally he brought the copy of Mein Kampf and read it next to the flames, seething at the content. The third time he brought it, Liesel finally found the courage to ask her question.
“Is it – good?”

Naturally, Max is at first furious at this question (though it does make one wonder why he was actually reading it), but another side to his personality develops as he quickly puts a positive perspective on it:

Sweeping away the anger, he smiled at her. He lifted the feathery fringe and dumped it toward his eyes. “It’s the best book ever.” Looking at Papa, then back at the girl. “It saved my life.”

So carefully but surely, Zusak sows the seeds for a genuine bond between the two as Liesel’s natural curiosity over books. He makes this shift in their relationship very believable as Liesel asks for more information about how the book saved Max’s life, and becomes deeply interested in his stories as he becomes less of a mysterious cipher and more of a three-dimensional person in her estimation:

When Liesel looked back on the events of her life, those nights in the living room were some of the clearest memories she had. She could see the burning light on Max’s eggshell face and even taste the human flavor of his words. The course of his survival was related, piece by piece, as if he were cutting each part out of him and presenting it on a plate.

This soon takes a sad turn, however, as Max becomes overcome with self-loathing as he recounts his story and begins blaming himself for endangering the Hubermanns, becoming almost frenzied as he pleads for their forgiveness.

His arm touched the fire and he snapped it back.
They all watched him, silent, until Papa stood and walked closer. He sat next to him.
“Did you burn your elbow?”

It’s a small gesture, but it does a lot to demonstrate what pure human selflessness is. The fact Hans is willing to ask rather than agree with Max shows, without having to be stated, how much Max is worth, even if he refuses to see it himself. And it’s Hans who points out the similarities between Max and Liesel:

“You know something?” Hans asked. He leaned toward the fire. “Liesel’s actually a good little reader herself.” Max lowered the book. “And she has more in common with you than you might think.” Papa checked that Rosa wasn’t coming. “She likes a good fistfight, too.”

How exactly does he know about that?

“I saw [Ludwig Schmeikl]’s papa at the Knoller.”
Liesel held her face in her hands. Once uncovered again, she asked the pivotal question. “Did you tell Mama?”
“Are you kidding?” He winked at Max and whispered to the girl, “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

Please appoint this man supreme ruler of the world, for he does know it all. Hans Hubermann for the win.

And then Death himself points out what else Max and Liesel have in common:

During the nights, both Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg would go about their other similarity. In their separate rooms, they would dream their nightmares and wake up, one with a scream in drowning sheets, the other with a gasp for air next to a smoking fire.

Once Hans plants this thought in Liesel’s mind, the seeds are sown for the true emotional climax of the chapter as Zusak finally shows Liesel forming an image of Max in her mind as a true human being. So it comes realistically, after a while of Liesel only finding Max possible to converse with as a curiosity piece, that they have a true moment of unprecedented connection. Zusak portrays this all so vividly and beautifully we can imagine the scene in our own head:

She made her way quietly down the hallway and into the living and bedroom.
“Max?”
The whisper was soft, clouded in the throat of sleep.
To begin with, there was no sound of reply, but he soon sat up and searched the darkness.

Zusak finally uses the bold notes to full effect, as well, as contained in one he gives us two human beings tentatively coming to an understanding with each other, and forming the bond of friendship together, as they experience true empathy with one another.


*** THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES ***
The girl: “Tell me. What do you see when you dream like that?”
The Jew: “…I see myself turning around, and waving goodbye.”
The girl: “I also have nightmares.”
The Jew: “What do you see?”
The girl: “A train, and my dead brother.”
The Jew: “Your brother?”
The girl: “He died when I moved here, on the way.”
The girl and the Jew, together: “Ja-yes.”

Zusak admits, however, in a beautiful metaphor, that moments like this don’t create an immediate permanent impact on your lives, however, and there is still more work to be done before Liesel and Max can find true healing for their problems:

The nightmares arrived like they always did, much like the best player in the opposition when you’ve heard rumors that he might be injured or sick-but there he is, warming up with the rest of them, ready to take the field. Or like a timetabled train, arriving at a nightly platform, pulling the memories behind it on a rope. A lot of dragging. A lot of awkward bounces.

This really is Zusak’s writing at its best. It sums up what we’ve seen so far, masters the art of visualization, and stands alone as a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of his literary techniques.

And Liesel and Max’s relationship does continue to steadily improve, as Liesel gives Max a newspaper so he can do the crossword, and Max finds himself unable to figure out how to repay the favor, highlighted especially when Liesel’s birthday comes around and she receives her fifth book as a present (“The Mud Men“) he has nothing to offer.

Death ends this chapter, however, by returning to his old tradition of teasing us about the future:

I often imagine him lying awake all that night, pondering what he could possibly offer.
As it turned out, the gift was delivered on paper, just over a week later.
He would bring it to her in the early hours of morning, before retreating down the concrete steps to what he now liked to call home.

And we finally have another blueprint to work off of, heading into:

PAGES FROM THE BASEMENT

Zusak starts off by continuing the tension regarding the gift Max is preparing for Liesel, as Hans, Rosa, and Max all stop her from coming down into the basement for a week using any means necessary. This does raise the question of whether this would arouse Liesel’s suspicion, but it also gives us an opportunity to see Rosa in a different light than usual.

For once, her curmudgeonly, abrasive nature is used to help someone for once as she keeps Max’s surprise safe and…

You can do all manner of underhanded nice things when you have a caustic reputation. It worked.

GODDAMN IT, DEATH. Stop DOING MY WORK FOR ME.

But Zusak then immediately ends the mystery by showing us what Max has been working on in the basement.

During that week, Max had cut out a collection of pages from Mein Kampf and painted over them in white. He then hung them up with pegs on some string, from one end of the basement to the other.

The most important factor to note in all this is that Max has so little at his disposal in order to make a proper gift (basically a hateful book written by a power-hungry mass-murderer and paint), and yet he creates a beautiful booklet that gives this part of the book its name (“The Standover Man”).

What’s most surprising is Zusak actually takes the time to draw out the whole 13-page booklet for us to read before Liesel has a chance to (with faded text from Mein Kampf underneath to add to the realism), and while I can’t summarize the whole thing, it basically tells Max’s life story using his words and simplistic illustrations, from his father’s disappearance and his sad days in hiding, to the development of his friendship with Liesel. It is extremely simplistic to the point of childlike, but is sincere, expertly sums up Max’s character arc and the last 36 pages of the book, and most importantly, comes from the heart.

Max delivers it to Liesel’s room in the middle of the night and tells a barely-awake Liesel to read it in the morning, and Zusak even manages to make something as simple as this into beautifully surreal writing, capturing the feeling we often have when we are somewhere halfway between dream and reality, as Liesel can’t even tell if it’s happening in her head. Then when she wakes up and reads it, Zusak even describes the paper crackling in her hand.

My only complaint is it seems a bit pointless to describe this when we can literally turn the pages and see it for ourselves without needing to imagine it:

There were the erased pages of Mein Kampf, gagging, suffocating under the paint as they turned.

What Zusak does right is portraying how carefully Liesel fixates on the words, noticing a new one every time she reads the booklet through. It’s clear she is touched by Max’s present, and what’s most important, she accepts the idea he has that they are friends now.

She goes down to the basement to thank him, but he is a much heavier sleeper than her, so she simply stays and watches him, finally acknowledging him as a human being and someone she can relate to as a fellow person in the house. We get the impression that these two who went through so much suffering and death, are no longer alone, and that they have some understanding for each other.

The scrawled words of practice stood magnificently on the wall by the stairs, jagged and childlike and sweet. They looked on as both the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder.
They breathed.
German and Jewish lungs.

And the chapter, and Part Four of the book ends on a positive note, but we can only wonder where the war will take these characters, and what this newfound bond will lead to.

In the final analysis, The Casual Vacancy was constructed so that when three characters walk past a small, unaccompanied boy who is wandering between a dangerous river and a road, we understand why none of them stopped to ask him why he was alone, or take charge of him. I chose each of these characters carefully.

Gavin represents the utter apathy for which it is necessary (in the famous quotation) for evil to flourish. He cannot even remember seeing Robbie Weedon after he hears that he has drowned, nor is he troubled by the thought that he must have walked very close to the boy during his final moments.

Samantha represents the rush of everyday troubles that prevents basically well-intentioned people from concentrating on matters that do not directly concern them. She subsequently admits to having seen Robbie and feels deep remorse at not having acted. Samantha is also honest enough to acknowledge to herself that Robbie’s appearance made her less likely to help him.

Shirley represents a degree of unkindness that stems from her own basic insecurity, because her background is not so very far removed from the Weedons. I think it is very common for such people to be among the most critical and judgmental. She – not Howard – is Barry Fairbrother’s true opposite in the novel. Denying her roots and castigating those who remind her of them, she is the negative image of the man who admits where he came from and goes back to try and help others. Shirley not only sees Robbie and ignores him as she grapples with her own problems, she feels no remorse afterwards, merely heaping blame on others for the child’s death.

An interesting question is whether Howard would have stopped to help Robbie. I’d be fascinated to know what readers think, but I’m sure he would have done. Howard is a happy man, which makes a difference; happy people are often kinder than the unhappy.”

– J.K. Rowling, on July 25 2013

The ending is the conceit. The ending defines all that came before. The ending is whether everything is tied into a neat little bow and we are invited to marvel at how perfectly all the disparate elements have come together. The ending of this particular work is so important, in fact, that it seems almost pointless to even discuss any of the events that are featured in this final adaptation prior. This may seem like a bizarre statement to make, since the events leading up to the climax of any work are generally what allows it to flourish, not to mention come into existence in the first place, but so little of the original book that contributed to the events you know, actually mattering has been retained that it seems more fitting to simply recap everything that pads out the first 40 minutes, and then move on to discussing what’s really important: the climax.

It opens the same way they all open: we get peaceful shots of the Pagford countryside, with endless footage of Vikram jogging, which is supposed to be important for reasons that will only be revealed later. Tessa is demeaning Colin for hyperventilating on the day of the election, because here she’s a horrible wife and Colin doesn’t have OCD to provide context for any of this. Also, when Fats taunts his stepfather, Tessa asks “Do you believe in anything, Stuart?” to which he replies, “I put all my faith in doritos.”

Huh, I thought Fats believed in this:

The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest, it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.

It’s almost as if Sarah Phelps is willfully disposing of the brief bits about “authenticity” being thrown about by Fats and Krystal and admitting his character has no meaning anymore.

They also appear to be throwing in the “wives at war with their husbands” card at random now. Dr. Jawanda and Vikram are now bitterly angry at each other out of nowhere, presumably because of Dr. Jawanda’s outburst at Howard, but she’s the one suspended, it doesn’t affect Vikram at all, and she accuses him of having no code of ethics, which makes absolutely no sense and is irrelevant to anything.

Shortly after this Mary unloads her anger against her dead husband on Colin. This illustrates Barry’s failings as opposed to his virtues, at least, but Mary also says, “Everyone grows up next door to someone. It doesn’t mean you have to look after them for the rest of their bloodsucking lives,” which puts BARRY FAIRBROTHER’S OWN WIDOW IN DIRECT FUCKING AGREEMENT WITH THE GODDAMN MOLLISONS. So instead of this being a case of Barry’s human faults in not being able to keep his attentions everywhere, it turns all the way to “OMG BARRY WHAT IS YOUR TASTES.” She also exhibits borderline insane paranoia by repeatedly insisting that Barry’s passion for keeping Sweetlove House open directly led to his aneurysm and telling Colin the exact same thing will happen to him. Which means Colin is forced to actually be the voice of reason and convince her otherwise…. and everything is specifically designed to be the exact opposite of the book which is a shame because the book actually had solid coherent characterization so now you have the exact opposite of that. why must i keep writing after that ugh.

On the Mollison side of things, pointless conflict between Samantha and Shirley occurs when Shirley searches the former’s computer history to find evidence of her being the Ghost and provokes her further by taunting her for being an alcoholic and encouraging her children to turn against her.

We do get some more flashbacks of Barry trying to help Krystal and Robbie out, which are nice and show the positive effect he had on their lives. There’s also a strange scene added where Krystal and Terri have a brief bonding experience sitting outside after Krystal and Fats have apparently broken up.

Yes, you read that right. Because apparently we need to ruin everything about the original work, Andrew and Fats’ friendship doesn’t dissolve just because Andrew is a fairly normal teenager who actually has some morals – no, it breaks up because as Fats says when he confronts Andrew outside Howard’s deli, “you always said that no female would come between us as mates” and admits that his relationship with Krystal is purely sexual. So instead of a platonic friendship between two males naturally breaking off, we have instead the most blatantly homoerotic relationship since Batman and Robin. Well done, Sarah Phelps. Bravo.

Krystal and Fats break up because Krystal realizes this and asks Fats “What’s wrong with him having a girlfriend?” But this is actually a good thing, isn’t it? Because now how will the ending come about if Krystal has nowhere to go and no boyfriend to fool around with to get her and Robbie away from the rape, prostitution, and drug abuse that constitutes their abusive, dysfunctional home life?

I’m going to leave that question open for now because GUESS WHAT IT’S ELECTION TIME. Fats is smoking marijuana outside the building where the voting is being held, and offering it to the voters who go in, while being quick to remind them who his parent is. Because he wants to get himself thrown in jail, I guess. Except that instead of calling the police or complaining to someone inside, the upper-class of Pagford huff and puff and mutter “Disgraceful” under their breaths as they come inside. Because we have literally turned into a cartoon, I’m surprised Colin doesn’t run out at this point and chase his son while the Benny Hill music plays. Except that Colin should actually be clapping his son on the back yelling “Good job” because he ACTUALLY CHOOSES TO VOTE FOR MILES.

I feel like I have to add at this point to all the readers who live in countries without access to this miniseries that I am literally not making that up. You heard me. Instead of the wonderfully triumphant scene where Kay comes to Colin’s house and encourages him to go off giddy as schoolchildren to vote for him, Colin willingly chooses to vote for his competitor. We do at least get the glorious shot of Samantha marking “You’re all wankers” on the ballot and tossing it in the box at any rate, but that only highlights the fact that Colin should be doing that. It honestly makes no sense. Barry was supposed to be this grand inspiring figure from beyond the grave. It’s bad enough his widow doesn’t even support what he fought for, but now COLIN IS VOTING FOR THE PERSON WHOSE MAIN PARTY PLATFORM IS “I OPPOSE EVERYTHING BARRY FAIRBROTHER WANTED TO PASS”. The whole reason Colin ran was because he didn’t want Barry’s legacy to “go up in smoke”! If he doesn’t believe in himself, then why not WALK AWAY QUIETLY WITHOUT VOTING AT ALL. Did you even consider that, Colin? Holy Jesus Christ.

Matters are made infinitely worse by the fact that Colin literally ends up voting himself out of office. Yes, tell me how likely the outcome of an election is that a wacky school principal would ever come one vote away from a member of the Kennedys being elected (especially when said potential parish councilor’s son and influence on the kids you enrolled in his school is smoking weed right outside). Do please go on.

Following that, we get some more strange changes: Rather than getting fired for his illegal practices, Simon bizarrely gets promoted to management where he can lay off other people (this is the company’s response to hearing him being slandered online for theft?????????) and Samantha leaves Miles with a note.

So that all leads up to Howard’s birthday party. I used 4 bullet points to describe what happened there in the book. Here, I can use 3:

  1. Fats shows up and tries to apologize to Andrew. Gaia encourages them to hug and make up, so they do. It doesn’t matter, though, because they actually keep Fats and Gaia kissing (this time, while high and drunk) and subsequently breaking away so Gaia can throw up, of course. This last part doesn’t really matter, though, because it comes after Andrew catches them and is so furious he literally just smashes a perfectly good bottle of wine for no reason at all.
  2. Shirley and Howard congratulate Miles on winning the election, and assure him he can do much better remarrying someone else. Earlier we had a scene where Miles whined and complained about one of his posters being vandalized, but now he just stares and reacts to all that’s going on around him, well aware of how little a role he really played in all this as an actual personality. However, we do get a scene after this that’s actually fairly shocking and at least well-acted. It’s the only thing I can actually come close to liking in the whole hour. Samantha actually comes back and confronts Shirley for trying to turn the family against her, telling her she won’t go along with her game. (Hurray, a character decision/narrative development that actually makes sense!) And Shirley’s response is shocking. She brings up the fact that Samantha apparently was not providing for her children when she was born because she was “very ill” (perhaps an alcoholic?) and Shirley had to step in. Shirley insists that the children don’t love Samantha and blames her for that, encouraging her to leave them. But Miles has actually witnessed this whole conversation, apparently. To be honest, I was hoping for a lot more. I was hoping this would be the moment Miles finally stepped up and did something. Samantha did most of the work already, though, but he does take Samantha away carefully, and cow his mother into submission by not backing down and saying just this: “Aubrey and Julia Sweetlove. You do know they’re not coming. Don’t you?” The implication being that she doesn’t have the social clout and isn’t nearly as admired as she thinks she is, and that she perhaps isn’t any more important than him in the grand scheme, something only Samantha could admit in the book. It’s a little step for a man of 43, but it sows the seeds for him really standing up for himself. I have to admit, this is one of the few additions I really enjoyed. It still seems like a bit too little, too late, though. But Samantha and Miles getting back together was something that never really fit or made sense to me in the book, either, so I won’t get into that.
  3. Add to the list of missing characters: Patricia “Black Sheep Lezzy” Mollison. Which is a bit strange, considering the BBC doesn’t mind gay alien couple smooching on Doctor Who. But this isn’t a change that matters much, though, because Andrew catches Howard and Maureen fooling around himself now (although the book implied this mainly went on in the past), and he records them on his phone.

So now, the seeds have all been sown for the finale. Let’s discuss what’s really important. I quoted Rowling’s explanation of her ending at the opening of my review. Here’s her admirable literary adapter’s, in the interest of fairness:
I was very straight with Jo and told her that I needed to write a different ending. It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.
Also, what works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learnt on EastEnders that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage.
If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be reward. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of s—s; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.”

So what are we left with, then?

Well, Kay was re-assigned as the Weedons’ social worker, and they are being forced to relocate to Yarvil. Obbo does not rape Krystal in this version, however. Krystal comes home to find Terri partying with her junkie friends, on the verge of smoking crack cocaine while telling her to loosen up. Obbo is there, out of prison, and he chases Krystal to her bedroom, but she manages to get away from him. He just warns her she’ll have to talk to him eventually, “because the thing is, Krystal, you’ve got nowhere else to go.” So I will give them credit for one thing: it’s clear how trapped Krystal is in her own life. Her hopes went out the window when Barry died, that much is clear.

But what I can’t forgive is what they build off of this. Krystal leaves with Robbie first thing in the morning, and since she and Fats are broken up now, instead of fucking him, she tries to put her plan from the book into effect but in the form of going to the Cubby Hole (where Fats just happens to be by sheer chance) and claims she’s pregnant and needs the house from his parents. Since that would all go down the drain once no baby turns up, it seems likely Krystal is actually supposed to be pregnant in reality. She doesn’t give any signs of it, so this is just confusing and stupid right off the bat. From there, it gets worse.

Fats responds the way you would expect, so Krystal goes to check on Robbie. However, he hasn’t actually gone in the water, at all, but Krystal sees his shoe in the river and jumps in to find him. She gets tangled in the wires of the computer Andrew and Simon threw in, and drowns. Robbie is found by Vikram and taken safely away. Andrew and Simon are randomly driving by for no reason, and they get out and realize what happened. So Simon (ONE OF TWO CHARACTERS SPECIFICALLY LABELED BY ROWLING AS “COMPLETELY BEYOND REDEMPTION”) gazes upon the consequences of his actions and feels genuine remorse and shock.

As for the Mollison front, it might as well be a soap opera akin to the one our writer so diligently worked on for the better part of a decade and more in the past, as Shirley dramatically confronts Howard looking like a possessed witch as she shows him the visual evidence of his adultery against her while he collapses of a heart attack, demonic music playing in the background as if it is beckoning them all to the gates of Lucifer himself. Then we are left with one last pointless scene, where it is clear Howard has survived in good health as opposed to the book’s ambiguity as to whether he would ever be able to leave. Which would make for a good tying up of his narrative arc here, but instead he sees the grim reaper one last time, because apparently Sarah Phelps thinks most people in hospitals who’ve just suffered heart attacks don’t. It goes to show he’s such a happy man who would have stepped in and saved the day, too.

Sukhvinder has been left with no narrative purpose at all, so rather than being a fitting climax to a character’s dramatic arc, we have one character we never paid attention to in the first place stepping in like the classic deux ex machina to save a person’s life because it would be really really sad if he didn’t do that, not because it has anything to do with what we know about him as a character in the past. It would just be too upsetting to watch people act the way we expect them to on Sunday afternoon BBC telly.

No voice for the raped, no voice for the self-abusive, no voice for the children who died before they were even able to become teenagers.

So what are we left with, at the end of all this? Krystal Weedon did not die as a decision to join her brother in the afterlife, trapped in the heroin-filled den of misery she tried to escape, as a culmination of her failed attempts to make life worthwhile for them both. She died away from all that due to a stupid freak accident that could have been avoided because despite supposedly loving her brother she didn’t bring him in the Cubby Hole with her for absolutely no reason. Fats being berated by Tessa and comforted by Colin is retained at least, but it doesn’t make any sense since he couldn’t have even known Robbie was there in the first place. There are no 3 people walking by to make us question the apathy of the human condition. According to Dr. Jawanda, “Anyone would have done the same.” So we have nothing to contemplate, nothing to make us question how things could have gone differently. What we are left with is 3 hours of our lives sucked away to watch, in the words of Shakespeare, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

And why? Because, by the admission of the writer who wrote all this, it would be challenging to the viewers to make them question their own lives and make them so angry at what they’ve seen on screen that they think about why 2 innocent children died in the hopes they could make a difference in their own community. It was only Colin’s fault he didn’t get elected to keep the addiction clinic open and a good person stepped in to save a 3-year-old’s life, when the novel already gave us the kindly empathetic dog-walker who stepped in to act, long after it was too late.

Norman Lear wrote in his book Even This I Get to Experience“Wait a second. Who said the comedies that preceded All in the Family had no point of view? The overwhelming majority of them were about families whose biggest problem was ‘The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner!’ Or ‘Mother dented the fender and how is she going to tell Father?’ Talk about messaging! For twenty years-until AITF came along-TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view!”

And he fought hard in 1971 against a whole network just to get one line of dialogue passed because of the precedent it would set, when only a few mainstream critics bothered to care at the time. Sarah Phelps chose to make people feel good about themselves and about all people in the world because it would be too risky to try to get away with something else on television in the year 2015. That would be scary. That would make her something close to an important writer who knew how to manipulate the medium she chose to work in to influence the masses in ways she couldn’t manage to when she was writing her soap opera for 14 years. That would be too much work and too much at stake.

The last glimpse we get into the world of Pagford is a happy couple moving into the peaceful community, being told they’re “Pagford people” by the realtor. This is fitting, because it signifies that in 3 hours, the story ultimately never got past the main premise: “Behind the pretty facade, however, is a town at war….. Pagford is not what it first seems.” Phelps seems to think a 16-year-old boy having the girl he has a schoolboy crush on smile and sit next to him on the bus while the “Glory Hallelujah” choir plays as if it’s the second coming of Christ somehow makes that all easier to handle, though, so there you go.

Fuck you, Sarah Phelps. And fuck you to the BBC. You took God knows how much of my life that could have been better used and obligated me to spend it watching, rewatching, taking notes on, writing about, television not worth the name, just to compose rants that only a handful of people on the Internet will ever care about at best, but are still ultimately more thoughtful, passionate, and driven that anything you could ever hope to produce.

Markus Zusak, you’re looking better every day.

I like to consider myself a fair critic, fundamentally. Some may view me as being overly positive, and too lenient when it comes to ignoring a work’s faults. They may be right to an extent, but I like to think that at least in the last post, I was attempting to be kind to writers I felt had tried their best to create a worthy adaptation.

However, having viewed this second part, I’m going to apologize for giving this production the benefit of the doubt – This is awful beyond any redemption. It shows no respect for the work of literature it is trying to adapt and it is clear now that none of the changes are an attempt to make their vision of the work more cohesive or even to improve on the original story but simply an attempt to buck the established story and show they are willing to do something new, with no thought to the end product that is created or what the purpose of the original story was and how it conveyed that meaning.

Just as the first one did, this has a nice opening, easing our way back into Pagford, through an atmosphere of pure peacefulness and controlled civility surrounding the funeral of Barry Fairbrother. Obviously, this is in direct contrast to the farcical tone that whole section had in the book, and the “Umbrella” song is excluded.

That already is a red flag, since it signified the deep connection between Krystal and Barry, and how music can have a profound effect on people even if other people can’t understand or appreciate it. In these ways, it had an important role in the story, but it seems that Sarah Phelps may have only seen it as a method for the youth to affront the established authority and break the controlled, civilized atmosphere of Pagford. She may even have felt it was too blatant at this point in the story. In any case, the mood is disrupted (apart from the tension of Krystal and Robbie arriving in the church) again when Fats comes up to Andrew in the cemetery and whispers: “Samantha Mollison’s got the most amazing arse. Have you ever noticed that?…Got a massive boner in the church. What? It’s a ruddy nice phenomenon… Sex and death. Grief gives you the raging horn, both men and female, even Mary. You put the touch in her right now, you could do whatever you wanted. I mean, she’d probably be crying, but still you could do what you wanted.”

So… what new facts have we actually learned about Fats from all that to make him interesting? He’s a sex-obsessed, arrogant idiot teenager who believes he is smarter than he has while showing no respect for polite society.

Fascinating. At least the book did this in funnier ways, simpler, too, with bits like Fats deliberately angering the woman on the bus, that get the idea of who he is across quickly and in a semi-creative way. The one consolation I do have is that this second part does focus largely on the teenagers, who were at the heart of the story.

We do also get an effective contrast with Andrew’s un-amused reaction to Fats, simply responding “She’s my auntie” to show that even he is offended by Fats’ behavior, which is of course the first sign that their friendship is not to last.

The bit with Fats finding his mother’s watch and letting Krystal keep is kept as well, and it’s here that he actually explains his philosophy at least slightly, when he tells Krystal how he admires her for being authentic, and Krystal explains what she feels he meant in a very simplistic choice of words to her mother.

This is very small consolation. The real problem started for me at the end of the last part, actually, with the “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother”‘s annoyingly conversational tone. It is difficult to tolerate the slang and jest-filled nature of the test on its own, but then when the post is followed by an abrupt attack on Miles just for the sake of a cheap joke at the expense of the Mollisons who thought the Ghost was on their side, I simply felt nothing but anger and contempt for this production. That was the moment when it became something that was completely beyond redemption.

I don’t think I can detail all the reasons why this is wrong, wrong, wrong, and systematically ruins everything that made the book work well. So let’s go through this, very carefully:

  1. Obviously, television is a visual medium, while literature relies on the power of words. This is very evident when you see how much careful craft Rowling put into the words chosen for all four Parish council messages written by three separate teenagers. Andrew was taking the task very seriously. Even if it was an idle teenage prank to get back at his father, he didn’t want anyone to think so. Rowling describes his writing of the first post as “a… laborious process.
    He had been trying for a style that was as impersonal and impenetrable as possible; for the dispassionate tone of a broadsheet journalist.
    ” This is very evident when we see the first post, and how carefully chosen the words are, so that it would be seen as the type of writing a conscientious adult voter would write about an election: “Aspiring Parish Councillor Simon Price hopes to stand on a platform of cutting wasteful council spending. Mr. Price is certainly no stranger to keeping down costs, and should be able to give the council the benefit of his many useful contacts. He saves money at home by furnishing it with stolen goods – most recently a PC – and he is the go-to man for any cut-price printing jobs that may need doing for cash, once senior management has gone home, at the Harcourt-Walsh Printworks.”                                                                                                                                                                        From there, the quality deteriorates rapidly. Sukhvinder writes her post in the heat of anger, with next to no editing. You can detect the angry, sad and pathetic teenage girl in every line, as she pettily writes it from Barry’s point of view, as opposed to Andrew simply using his name (that he only thought of at the last minute): “Parish Councillor Dr. Parminder Jawanda, who pretends to be so keen on looking after the poor and needy of the area, has always had a secret motive. Until I died, she was in love with me, which she could barely hide whenever she laid eyes on me, and she would vote however I told her to, whenever there was a council meeting. Now that I am gone, she will be useless as a councillor, because she has lost her brain.”                                                                                                                                                             Barry Fairbrother’s son even guesses, based on analyzing these posts, that they were written by different people. But the style in which they are written becomes most important with Fats’ post, written in his pretentious pseudo-sesquipedalian style, complete with gratuitous title: “Fantasies of a Deputy Headmaster
    One of the men hoping to represent the community at Parish Council level is Colin Wall, Deputy Headmaster at Winterdown Comprehensive School. Voters might be interested to know that Wall, a strict disciplinarian, has a very unusual fantasy life. Mr. Wall is so frightened that a pupil might accuse him of inappropriate sexual behavior that he has often needed time off work to calm himself down again. Whether Mr. Wall has actually fondled a first year, the Ghost can only guess. The fervor of his feverish fantasies suggests that, even if he hasn’t, he would like to.
    ” And when his mother, Tessa, reads this, how does she react? “It wasn’t Mollison. Stuart wrote that, I know he did. Tessa recognized her son in every line. She was even astonished that Colin could not see it, that he had not connected the message with yesterday’s row, with hitting his son. He couldn’t even resist a bit of alliteration. He must have done all of them – Simon Price. Parminder. Tessa was horror-struck.” Here, Andrew writes his posts like some guy in a bar, nudging you and joking about the guy sitting in the back just to get into a quick fight for fun. Fats writes his post later on in the exact same conversational manner with no noteworthy differences in prose.
  2. That wasn’t the only respect in which the post shed serious light on Andrew’s character, though. We got a solid idea of his motivation for attacking his father. He wanted him to suffer, and he wanted him to get in big trouble because he was angered by years of putting up with his father’s abuse while his mother pretended he was a saint while being beaten. AND THERE IS NO FUCKING REASON IN THE WORLD FOR ANDREW TO RANDOMLY ATTACK MILES MOLLISON WHEN HE ISN’T WORKING FOR HOWARD, HAS NO DIRT ON HIM OR ANY REASON WHY SOMEONE WOULD TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY AND NOT VOTE FOR THE ASSHOLE, AND BARELY FUCKING KNOWS THOSE PEOPLE AT ALL. THIS SCRIPT MAKES NO SENSE. WHY IS ANYONE PUTTING UP WITH THIS SHIT? OH MY GOD JESUS CHRIST.
  3. We don’t even get a chance to see Simon’s full, abusive self in action. He has to restrain himself here because he’s told by the Mollisons instead of his wife, for no reason. So naturally he isn’t going to start swearing at them about it. Instead, when he gets home he only demonstrates the amount of anger that anyone in the world would when dealing with a situation like this. And we never even got a clear idea of Simon’s criminal dealings in the first place, as proper set-up for this! Andrew does hear him apparently subjecting Ruth to violence downstairs later, but this is after the post is published and it, for some reason, inspires him to attack Miles instead of writing something else about his father.
  4. Tessa asks Fats if he wrote the post when she has no reason to suspect him of this. The incident in which Simon humiliated Fats happened years ago and has never even been mentioned here, and it shows her as an unfair parent who isn’t capable of discerning her son’s voice in writing. Then later when they’re trying to dump the television set in the river, Simon figures out Andrew wrote the post with no explanation at all. He just randomly accuses him of doing it AND PROCEEDS TO DANGLE HIM OFF A FUCKING BRIDGE AND LEAVE HIM THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT BASED OFF OF ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. SERIOUSLY, WHY IS ANYONE PUTTING UP WITH THIS WRITING WHEN THEY CALLED THE DARK KNIGHT RISES OUT ON THIS SAME FUCKING UNIMAGINATIVE “I CAN SEE IT IN YOUR EYES INTUITION” BULLSHIT IN 2012?

And from there, it actually manages to get worse. I couldn’t believe it either, but it does. Let’s get to that worthless second post where Andrew attacks Miles for no reason. It’s clear now the writers are actually aware of my complaints about Miles as a worthless, ineffectual non-character because that’s what Andrew’s post is all about. No complaints about his political ideas or shedding light on unethical acts committed by his family, he just calls him a mama’s boy. (The same things people have been saying about Marten Weiner on Mad Men for years, and what a shock, he’s still hanging around.)

Because Miles is the thin non-character the post correctly accuses him of being, he displays no real reaction to this other than to be a bit worried and confused, and fumble around awkwardly. He spends the rest of his time on screen eating marshmallows, being pushed around by his wife, and acting uncomfortable when his father is insulted in a political argument over dinner that he, of course, has no real involvement in despite being the one actually running for office. (And before it starts, we get that HILARIOUS scene where Dr. Jawanda insults Howard and Shirley and wouldn’t you know it, they’re standing right behind you? Because why couldn’t you start immediately slandering people you know will show up at any moment, right?)

The reason this argument starts over dinner is because in this version, Dr. Jawanda insults Howard’s weight and rants about his medical conditions over a small dinner that is being held for Tessa, Shirley, Howard, Miles, Samantha, Mary, and the Jawandas. So it’s something the voters would never hear about, in other words, so it has no real effect on Howard’s personal dignity or the judgment of those who may be on the edge about whether to get rid of the housing estate or not.

But the real purpose for this scene becomes clear. Since there’s no real incentive for Howard to be furious about it as something that actually mattered, it instead is transplanted to become the catalyst for a bizarre storyline where Howard experiences paranoia over the idea of his imminent death. Apparently feeling that Dr. Jawanda is right and he really should stop eating so much, he has a long extended nightmare where Barry shows up in his restaurant and says “You know what the real casual vacancy is? It’s the grave.” Howard then sees A GIANT ANIMATRONIC SKELETON GRIM REAPER SWINGING A SCYTHE IN THE SQUARE and wakes up terrified after seeing worms devouring his rotted cheese, and seeing worms come off his own face.

I am not making this up. I know what I said in the last post about the need to physically express what is going through people’s minds, but this is just completely over the top. There is no subtlety here at all. Did they really think that we couldn’t figure out what the “casual vacancy” represented, without being told? I get what they’re doing here, they’re trying to show very blatantly what the story is about so people won’t ask “what are we watching?” But it is mind-boggling the lack of credit they give to people’s intuition AND BASIC INTELLIGENCE! ALSO THIS IS A FUCKING CARTOON. HOW DO THEY EXPECT ANYONE TO TAKE A GIANT ANIMATRONIC SKELETON SWINGING A SCYTHE SERIOUSLY AT ALL.

But I will give them credit for one thing: They actually managed to make Fats more loathsome! I didn’t think it was possible, but here after a scene involving him and Krystal jerking off to each other behind a shelf in the public library, (Married… with Children did this on network television in 1996, “Bud Hits the Books”. You are not SO EDGY, BBC/HBO.) Fats casually zips up his pants and tells the librarian to “call my mum and complain”. He then proceeds to ignore his parents’ lecturing, smoke a joint in front of them, and talk about having sex with Krystal. GOD, I HATE THIS FUCKING KID SO MUCH. PUNCH HIM IN THE HEAD. But thankfully, Tessa does actually do some disciplinary work as a parent here, in the form of trying to sort him out and FLAT-OUT PULLING THE MARIJUANA OUT OF HIS MOUTH. I know that has absolutely nothing in common with her portrayal in the book and thus Rowling’s commentary on “casual parenting” since she is at least trying to do something, even if it isn’t working. I don’t care. That was awesome, and at least Fats’ motivation for slandering Colin has solid backing here. (Even though it’s written in the same style as Andrew’s post, as probably mentioned before.)

So the second part of our tale ends with Shirley cluelessly wishing Howard to look fondly to the future: “…the Ghost will disappear, we can get a good night’s sleep. Nighty-night.” And as her husband goes to bed thinking of the day he will never wake up, Andrew Price rolls up the covers in the Fields housing estate, both staring at the same portrait of the deceased Aubrey Fawley. The credits roll, and it is clear no one will sleep peacefully.

Least of all me, because I have another full hour of this garbage to review.

P.S. I didn’t find the place to mention it because it didn’t seem to be remotely importantly, but Gavin has been completely cut from this production. More importantly, Nana Cath is also absent. What is this story supposed to be about again?

I should begin this review by listing off my expectations. First of all, I understand completely that The Casual Vacancy is obviously not a book which is easily adapted. I mean, I don’t believe any work is particularly easy to adapt, but The Casual Vacancy is especially so for four main reasons:

The conflict is very low-stakes. The target audience for the Harry Potter books is unlikely to be deeply involved in the result of a parish council election to determine the fate of an addiction clinic and a housing estate.
It is only at the end we discover what the story was really about, with the tragedy of Krystal and Robbie’s deaths.
It is a very realistic story, with a large cast of characters whose names and how they relate to each other can be difficult to memorize.
In addition, they are three-dimensional, but usually not very likable.

To be frank, I had a feeling I was going to be deeply disappointed by this mini-series. Many people were disappointed by the book, I am well aware of that. They found it difficult to bond with the characters. I personally managed it due to a combination of Rowling’s compelling writing style and her personal talent for creating memorable characters.

So I will say one thing: in a film, this project might well border on near disastrous, but in a 3-part miniseries there is potential for this exercise to prove effective.

So, without further ado, let us discuss the first part!

I will say that I love the way the show opens off. We get shots of the beautiful English countryside, then join Andrew and his brother riding through the streets of Pagford, which in general comes across as the calmest, most pleasant and idyllic small

English town one could find.

What we get after that I will admit had me annoyed to an extent. We’re introduced to Barry Fairbrother – played by Rory Kinnear. He wakes up early in the morning, and hobbles to his bathroom mirror, and we get a laughably over-the-top bit, as the glass in the mirror appears to refract and crack, then we get an actual glimpse of Barry’s face in the mirror turning to a skull as he apparently suffers his fatal brain aneurysm and falls to the floor.

I can’t imagine how you would even respond to this if you hadn’t read the book, first of all. It’s so cartoonish it took me out of the mood entirely, and the most bizarre part of all is that Barry doesn’t even die here. (The skull is repeated as a reflection in Barry’s car leading up to his inevitable collapse in the parking lot, along with the refracted light and images reflecting his POV.) The scene where he does die is appropriately dramatic, though, with Mary’s panic and Barry vomiting onto himself, though it is confusing why the image flickers and is distorted at this point when it obviously is not reflecting anyone’s POV.

I suppose the idea is to obviously rectify the one complaint all the haters had and many of the lovers admitted: The only likable character dies in the first 3 pages. So here, Barry doesn’t die until 25 minutes in. Whereas in the novel his character was explored largely in flashbacks and through what we were told of him after the fact, here he is made greatly endearing to the audience as those

25 minutes are devoted primarily to establishing what a saint Barry is and how loathsome and classist the Mollisons are by contrast.

In one particularly memorable scene, Barry dramatically stands up and defends Yarvil’s misunderstood drug addicts before the parish council in what I will admit is a well acted passionate speech in which he even uses language in a church and compares the anti-Fields agenda to Nazi-era fascism!

I’m being vague on what that case is, because…. well, let’s just say
from here, the changes to the source material just keep on coming, and don’t let up for the full hour. I’ll just attempt to summarize the most important:
Here, the conflict to offload the Fields housing estate onto Yarvil is replaced with an attempt to close a community center that was left for the children of Yarvil by Aubrey Fawley (in the 1800s according to a plaque, as opposed to the book setting his lifespan in the 1950s). It will then be converted into a spa, if the bill backed by the Mollisons is passed.

Barry Fairbrother works with Miles at his law firm and is Simon’s half-brother.

There is no mention of Barry serving as a rowing instructor to Krystal. Instead, his connection to the Weedons is through a relationship with Terri. We see him bail her out of jail and drive her home, where it is clear she has had a history of being combative with him as she insults him, and Barry shrugs it off with an acknowledgement to her that she has done it before. This stands in direct contrast to the book, where on the few occasions Barry came to the house and interacted with Terri, he was one of the few people she grudgingly liked.

Here, Colin does not announce Barry’s death to a school assembly. Krystal sees him crying in the hallway, and actually taunts him. This is an especially noticeable change because it results in her getting in trouble for a legitimate reason. It is then Tessa who subsequently informs her that Barry has died.

Tessa is actually open to Dr. Jawanda about her belief that Colin is

not mentally fit enough for the strain of occupying the seat on the parish council.

The most significant change for me is that near the ending, Krystal actually goes out to a bar and finds Obbo where she confronts him on selling drugs to Terri, then has him arrested. It doesn’t quite make sense how, since she calls the police from the bar without offering physical evidence to his drug-dealing (this also endangers her mother).

I will note that I am only mentioning what I feel are the most significant changes. A more in depth list can be found on Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Casual_Vacancy_%28miniseries%29)

But I am not a pedantic worshiper of a book who refuses to tolerate any changes when it is adapted to a new medium. The only thing I object to very strongly is when it is evident to me that some important aspect of the story has been excluded that renders a fault with the revised narrative.

The first change to the main conflict on the Parish Council was probably done to simplify the affair and make it more relatable to American audiences. The addition of a spa being proposed as a substitution is likely there to make it easier to take the side against the anti-Fielders when it is clear their vote is also towards something that would provide simple pleasure and hedonism for them personally. (The adverse effect of the removal of the addiction clinic from other people’s lives still withstanding.)

So clearly the conflict has been simplified to a degree, but this is not necessarily a bad thing if it makes the already on-the-nose class themes more interesting. Frankly I think I will reserve judgment on this change, and see how it pans out.

The majority of the remaining significant changes relate to strengthening Barry’s relationships with prominent characters in the book. A lot of time is spent here on Barry’s suspicions that Simon is abusing his children, for example, which does help us know that this treatment is recurring and has been going on for quite a long time (the frequent flashbacks let us know this in the book). He also offers Andrew a summer job which could likely be an attempt to set up his career at Howard’s deli.

The only area truly weakened by these changes is Barry’s relationship with Krystal. I’m a bit puzzled as to why (presumably) the writer of this miniseries, Sarah Phelps, would decide to make this change, when it distances him from Krystal who is still the defining prominent character here just as she was in the book.

There is, of course, no mention of her rowing here, then, which served a lot to make her relatable, but she is certainly made a more aggressive character here through the changes I have previously related. She was obviously assertive in the book, but they make her far more willing to follow through with that here in being confrontational at the drop of a penny. She is even introduced flouting the rules against wearing a school uniform, purely to express minor rebellion through individual expression.

As to the change in Tessa’s characterization, I am not sure I like that either. It seemed clear reading the book that she was aware of her husband’s limitations and mental state, but also sympathetic. Her natural impulse seemed to be to offer comfort and protect him from other’s scorn at whatever cost. Their marriage was probably the most genuine and strong in the book, in fact, simply due to the extent of unbridled acceptance Tessa had for Colin.

But from there, I will move on to a discussion of the acting, and how that affects the characterization, along with more discussion of the writing aspect.

Interestingly enough, the only truly notable actors in the cast (at least to me) are Rory Kinnear, Julia McKenzie and Michael Gambon.

Considering the latter two actors are well known for playing Miss Marple and Albus Dumbledore, they might not be likely to do well as the stuck-up, largely unlikable Howard and Shirley Mollison (though it’s obvious why Gambon was chosen). They personify the parts very well, in my opinion, though. Gambon’s performance as Dumbledore was flawed mostly because he was a bit too loud and authoritative in a way that appeared stuck up and brash. Here, that works marvelously for Howard. You can basically sense the privilege and need to present a dignified appearance oozing off of both of them.

Kinnear plays Barry Fairbrother fairly well. He comes off as an everyman who has natural compassion and self-deprecation in regards to his own faults. He plays the aforementioned dramatic speech very well. One aspect of the writing that was significantly weakened in the face of his early collapse is that he simply shrugs it off in conservation with Tessa as the result of a hangover he suffered from drinking several beers the night before.

In the original book, Simon was demonized for taunting Barry over not looking after his health better, when Rowling’s idea obviously was that people wish to deny the reality of their own mortality and that death will come to them as well as other people. Here Barry had strong reason to suspect something was wrong with him and should have gotten medical help, just as Simon believed.

Samantha is played marvelously by Keely Hawes, however. Right from her first scene, it’s clear she epitomizes the discontentment and contempt with her life, husband, in-laws, and the entire community she resided in that largely defines the character. After being told early on by Miles that Howard and Shirley are furious with Barry, she offers this flawless rant: “I’ll buy him a drink. Fuck it, I’ll buy him his dinner, 3 courses and cheese, might even give him a hand job.” Miles is portrayed by Rufus Jones and written rather indifferently, though, as simply a put-upon bumbling, ineffectual clod.

Lolita Chakrabarti, Monica Dolan, and Simon McBurney’s performances as Dr. Jawanda, Tessa, and Colin are simply adequate, however. McBurney fails to come across as adequately vulnerable and insecure enough to play Colin, actually. The contrast between their parenting is shown on display very well, though, as Colin actually smells Fats smoking marijuana in his room at bedtime and has to be talked out of confronting him by Tessa, ever unwilling to put her foot down as a surrogate mother.

We also see very little of Sukhvinder at all. Her mother calls attention to her as quiet and doing very little to join others unless she is told to, and from that point she is mostly a silent observer in a few scenes. I doubt one would ever suspect her important role in the climax from this, and one wonders whether the storyline with her self-harm will be included in the next part.

The scene where Kay arrives at the Weedons’ house and becomes concerned at the obviously unsanitary conditions for Robbie and Terri too worn out from heroin on the couch to answer the door is played for appropriate drama and tension. Her dysfunctional, combative relationship with her daughter is very clear.

And that brings me to Abigail Lawrie’s performance as Krystal Weedon. She is, quite frankly, remarkable, dominating the screen from the offset and making it clear she is someone who is living a life she hates and should not be messed with. I couldn’t take my eyes away in her every scene.

Kay is played as a professional by Michele Austin, and is made more sympathetic in a scene where her superiors shame her basically for caring at all.

As for Andrew and Simon, Andrew is portrayed well by Joe Hurst as a lanky, average teenage boy who comes across as likable in comparison to his friend. Richard Glover makes it clear Simon is an asshole, that is for sure. From the moment we see him stomp out of his car with his shaved head, slump of his shoulders and perpetual glare, we know he’s someone to stay away from, and his subsequent acts of damaging his son’s bicycle to prove a point and emotional abuse of them merely hammer that in. He’s actually underplayed in comparison to the book, though. It always comes off as a performance, never as a naturally unpleasant, conniving and self-serving man. He has better control of his temper here, definitely, and there is only one instance of physical abuse. This is against Andrew, and it does not last very long. In fact, it comes as a response to blunt provocation from Andrew, who tells him “Everyone knows you’re not Barry” in contrast to the book’s characterization of him as a pragmatic introvert who holds elaborate fights with his father in his mind but attempts to quietly placate him in real life.

But what I have been building up to here is the biggest issue I have with this whole production: largely this is inevitable owing to how multi-faceted the characters were in the original book and how much of their personality was fleshed out through flashbacks and internal monologue by Rowling, but the characters do come across mostly as imitations of their literary counterparts. There is a lack of emotional investment in them and a lack of real penetration to who they are – they rather come across as hollow imitations of themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Fats. In the internal monologue Rowling gives him in the novel, we get a fascinating glimpse into a philosophy that, while flawed, still has basis in reality. We know he’s a pseudo-intellectual, but we know why, too. It feels natural, and he is a character who fascinated me right from the get-go. (So he did for other readers, as well, such as one commenter on Rowling’s Goodreads question who compared his philosophy to Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange

.) His rebellious streak and contempt for his parents is clear from his first scene where he opens the car door while moving, but this doesn’t provide much contrast with Andrew challenging his father, even though we know their differences eventually led them to drift apart.

So what more do we get from that to make it clear he’s more than your average angry teen rebel? Well, in a later scene, he starts a conversation with Gaia by saying “I cordially invite you to join me in contemplation of the infinite…. Those in my infinite circle call me Fats.” To his credit, Brian Vernel does deliver this dialogue without any trace of self-awareness, but without any sense of pride, either. It comes across as unnatural, and illustrates what this character writing is: a shallow imitation of characters only J.K. Rowling could write.

The rest of Fats’ time on-screen is devoted to his discussion about Andrew on his desire to have sex and a flat-out depressing imitation of his philosophical pondering with Andrew as they smoke in Simon’s shed (a bit of clever transplanting, since this is what got Andrew in trouble in the beginning of the book):

Fats: It just proves, you know, that it’s all sex and death. I mean, that’s all there is.
Andrew: And music.
Fats: Yeah, but mainly sex, because right when it comes, death, your last thought is never ever gonna be “I wish I’d done a little less shagging.” So we gotta live now.
Andrew: Yeah. Gotta live……

The reason I have quoted this in detail is because I want to compare it with the passage that is written in the book. It is lengthy, and this post is running long, but I feel I should quote it in its entirety:

“What matters, Arf?” asked Fats, after a long, dreamy pause.
His head swimming pleasantly, Andrew answered, “Sex.”
“Yeah,” said Fats, delighted. “Fucking. That’s what matters. Propun…propogating the species. Throw away the johnnies. Multiply.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew, laughing.
“And death,” said Fats. He had been taken aback by the reality of that coffin, and how little material lay between all the watching vultures and an actual corpse. He was not sorry that he had left before it disappeared into the ground. “Gotta be, hasn’t it? Death.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew, thinking of war and car crashes, and dying in blazes of speed and glory.
“Yeah,” said Fats. “Fucking and dying. That’s it, innit? Fucking and dying. That’s life.”
“Trying to get a fuck and trying not to die.”
“Or trying to die,” said Fats. “Some people. Risking it.”
“Yeah. Risking it.”
There was more silence, and their hiding place was cool and hazy.
“And music,” said Andrew quietly, watching the blue smoke hanging beneath the deep rock.
“Yeah,” said Fats, in the distance. “And music.”
The river rushed on past the Cubby Hole.

Many may wonder why I have such an infatuation for Mad Men, but in a recent interview I watched with the creator, he hit on exactly why, because he was capable of recognizing this fact: “I love the idea that all of these characters have a private life. There is a privacy there that I think you don’t get. It’s mostly ignored, it’s mostly ignored because it’s hard… it’s easier in a novel to get psychological like that. But in film it becomes something where people say, ‘What exactly are we watching?’ And you have to find a way to constantly physically express their feelings.”

And on the surface level that’s what the scene I just quoted appears to be, a verbal expression of emotions, hence physical. But notice we get a description of Andrew’s subconscious mind to understand where he is coming from as to where Fats is actually coming from, to inform what they are saying and determine the difference between the two.

They are both young, ignorant and naive. They have silly aspirations that will be forgotten as soon as they are achieved and they encounter the real “real life”, not the one of their fantasies, but in the show we get a vague impression that that is all they are. They are a mouthpiece for the writer to make a desired point, and once it has been made, we move on. What’s more, it comes after we have no idea of Fats’ philosophy, and see him only as a pretentious teenager. There is no idea that he might be on to anything at all, even ignorant, angry, and misguided. The scene appears as if it is intended to taunt them both, to make us roll our eyes at their frailty. The Time review of the show summed up Fats’ philosophy very well, however: “Fats, like so many adolescents, has grasped a truth and then made the mistake of believing it to be the whole truth.”

It is not possible to recognize that here with the information given, but even if everything was written perfectly, you have to rely on good acting, even that being subjective, to secure the desired emotional response, and notice how it is trimmed down to such a specific time frame, and it is not going at our pace. We watch it, we think briefly of what we are seeing, then it is over.

In the book, pauses are described. We are allowed to experience those pauses, visualize them, and let them live on for as long as we want. The scene achieves a poetry to it that is sorely missing when you can simply see the scene playing in front of you and realize it is just 2 teenagers with naive ideas about life, who fantasize about being adults, losing their virginity, or having done that, continuing to exploit sex as if it is the only thing that determines an emotional relationship, because they are not yet mature enough to have experienced that feeling. Because on a physical level, that may be true. But on the literary level, we focus on a meeting of the minds. They are only capable at this point of perceiving what happens on a physical level, not the emotional level underneath, or the reasons for that strange omnipresent force known as society, only that is there and they must rebel against it, though it barely cares.

What visual media such as television and movies do most of all is portray a sense of showmanship, and drama at what is clearly going on before our eyes. The ending here epitomizes that, closing with a dramatic monologue by Andrew as he announces himself as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother on the Parish Council message board.

It’s an effective cliffhanger, definitely. But we are given no idea of his internal revenge plan against Simon, what he is planning to do with the blog, or why he feels the need to warn anyone ahead of time. It will definitely make the viewers at home yell, “Ooh, this boring old town is about to get INTERESTING!” but on an emotional level beyond simple thrills at cheap entertainment, in an attempt to relate the characters, I am afraid we are simply locked out.

There is certainly potential in Obbo coming out of prison and raping Krystal for more clear reasons most people can relate to, admittedly (though rapists obviously do commit the act out of a desire for power and control more often than a specific vendetta).

So what I am saying here is that I am trying to be sympathetic to the miniseries and understand what they are up against here. There is the necessary element of voyeurism – we feel we are watching a real community, and snooping around figuring out what is going on with these people in this town from the bits and pieces of conversations we get to see. It feels like something that could be happening in many towns all over the world, without us ever getting more than a vague impression of it, or its ripples.

I am interested in viewing the next two parts, because there is a foundation here. It may just take some time to see if it holds up with the people that have been placed inside.

Edit: Interestingly enough (and in addition to blatant spoilers for the changes made in adaptation), the trailer shows Simon responding to someone expressing sympathy for him having lost his brother (Barry) with “Don’t be. I fucking hated him.” At least in the HBO version, he says “We never really got on (and this line does not appear to be dubbed).” I doubt this was done for language, since the word “fuck” was heard on the show more than a few times. I can understand it getting a TV-14 despite this when it is broadcast on HBO, but for anyone who is qualified to answer: Is the BBC really allowed to broadcast language like that, and what are the censorship laws? Was the line cut for the BBC, along with others?