By Tanner Jensen
“It’s a small story really, about, among other things:
Written by Markus Zusak in 2005, The Book Thief tells the compelling story of Liesel Meminger and her best friend Rudy Steiner as the two experience the normal trials of childhood during the rise of Nazi Germany. The story itself is told from the perspective of death, lamenting the loss of life and recounting his experiences with the two children over the progression of the war. The book explores the innocence and strangeness of childhood, the development of love between a foster girl and her parents, and most of all the way that words can bring people together and open up possibilities.
Liesel is a young girl adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a German couple living in Molching, the plot centering around Liesel’s experiences as a young girl in Nazi Germany, experiencing the normal childhood moments of making friends and getting into fights as well as joining the Hitler Youth and watching parades of prisoners marching towards the camp outside of town. As she grows more accustomed to her new foster family, Liesel opens up, connecting in particular with Hans as the two learn to read together using spare supplies from Hans’s career as a house painter. Writing and reading become a window of opportunity for Liesel to explore the world, and kickstart her career as a thief of books: from unattended graveyard manuals to Nazi book burning piles. For Liesel, words become a new way of looking at the world, leading to some fantastic imagery from the author:
It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words. You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards. Don’t make me happy. Please, don’t fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this.
It’s a bit of an investment at ~550 pages, and the slow burn beginning might turn some away. Some reviewers also take issue with the relatively slow pacing of the story, which generally follows the daily lives and experiences of Liesel and Rudy, not all of which are intense or dramatic moments. I happen to think that pacing works well as a slow burn that builds a real emotional investment in the characters, one that really pays off in the end. Liesel and her family are some of the most believable and likeable characters I’ve ever experienced, and seeing Liesel and Rudy grow up and deal with both the innocence of childhood and the horrors of Nazi Germany is one of the hardest things I’ve ever sat down to read through.
I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone interested in an emotionally gripping drama with some genuinely fascinating characters, one with some of the most creative use of language and descriptions I’ve ever experienced.
“You cannot be afraid, read the book. Smile at it. It's a great book—the greatest book you've ever read.”
—The Book Thief
Reviewed by Gwen Hart
In her fourth poetry collection, Like (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2018), A. E Stallings uses her mastery of poetic forms to explore subjects as diverse as language use, current events, and the weight of loss.
The title poem, “Like: the Sestina,” is an unusual twist on the sestina form. Usually, a sestina has six end words that alternate in a prescribed pattern (e.g., see Tyler Van Swol’s “Bear Down: A Sestina” and Grant Lenz’s “The Show Goes On” in the third issue of Hot Dish Magazine). Stallings’ sestina, however, uses some variation of like for every end-word in the poem: like, dislike, alike, look-alike, unlike, money-like, I’m like, he’s like, etc.). The acrobatic uses of like are delightful and surprising, even while highlighting what “real speech is like,” as Stallings writes.
Stallings also takes on current events with several powerful poems about the plight of refugees. In “Empathy,” Stallings compares the life of a middle class family to that of a family of refugees setting out on a dangerous journey across water without proper equipment, their “cheap life jackets / No better than bright orange trash.” The contrast between the two families is striking, and the startling ending of the poem cuts right to the heart. The multipart poem “Refugee Fugue” fleshes out the issue even more. The poem contrasts scenes and perspectives, from children on holiday “making their sandy town” of sand castles while “Small bodies” of immigrant children “wash ashore, / Sea-chewed, a few days dead.” Each section of the poem takes on a different form—heroic couplet, rhymed quatrain, list, and so on—emphasizing the many voices represented across the sections.
In a tour-de-force multi-part poem in the middle of the book, “Lost and Found” (linked to here in Beloit Poetry Journal), Stallings describes a mother’s dream journey through “the valley of the moon /where everything misplaced on earth accrues,” from the houses of long-dead grandparents, “letters / we meant to write,” lost hours of sleep, faded beauty, and much more. I heard her read this poem at West Chester University’s Form and Narrative Conference, and the audience was held in thrall at the imagery—and the poignant ending, which I will not ruin here.
In conclusion, anyone who enjoys poetic form, or who is simply interested in the best of today’s poetry, will be well rewarded with a trip through A. E. Stallings’ Like.