The No Scrubs Book Club: Written On The Body

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‘You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear?’

Written on the Body is an experimental, poetic novel written from the point of view of a narrator with no name and no gender signifiers, recounting their relationship with a married woman. The narrative is non-linear, meandering between memories of her married lover, Louise, and others before her.

I’ll be honest, I started this book on the train to Book Club. It’s been a hectic sort of month. But by page thirty two, I was hooked.  The story itself is thin, but the prose is rich – almost overflowing – and completely engaging. So it was enough to have some thoughts to share. And luckily half of our little group had finished the thing, so there was plenty to talk about. In fact, we managed to stay on topic for over two hours.

The first question that came up was, who did we think narrated the story? Every single one of us identified them as a woman. While we admitted some bias – the book was written by a woman, and selected for the club by a lesbian woman who rates this as one of her favourite books – we also discussed what made us think of them as a she. After all, Winterson was careful to use mixed gender comparisons when describing them: swaggered like Mercutio, trembled like a schoolgirl (these are complete misquotes, I’m sorry) and keeps all descriptions of their clothing gender neutral. Several members thought the narrator noticed and described small moments as only a woman would. Another thought the narrator had seemed out of place in the men’s bathroom, treating it (and other instances when they encounter men) like foreign territory. I felt the love interest’s husband was far too unthreatened by the narrator spending so much time alone with his wife for it to be a man. Another, the least convinced of the narrators gender either way, admitted the book had caused her to examine her own notions of stereotyped gender behaviour. At no point did we examine why it was so important for most of us to assign a gender to the narrator, which is an interesting question in itself.

‘I have a head for heights it’s true, but no stomach for the depths. Strange then to have plumbed so many.’

Conversation went from unhappy marriages to the nature of affairs and trust to whether we perceived the narrator as selfish (a resounding yes, from those who’d read far enough), to the usefulness of homing pigeons, to the strength of the story versus the strength of the prose. We agreed the story, in the hands of a different writer, probably wouldn’t be worth reading. Some of us (okay, me) pointed out aspects of the prose we’d definitely find annoying written by someone else, and one of our members argued there were not enough sex scenes. But she also hadn’t finished the book, and was advised – very enthusiastically – to keep going.

I can’t rate the book, but I can promise to finish it. It’s rare to find a poetic writer I can sit through, let alone enjoy, so I’m glad to have been introduced to Jeanette Winterson.

‘Sometimes I think of you and I feel giddy. Memory makes me lightheaded, drunk on champagne. All the things we did. And if anyone had said this was the price I would have agreed to pay it. That surprises me; that with the hurt and the mess comes a shift of recognition. It was worth it. Love is worth it.’

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Next up, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I’m excited for the chance to finally get into some Vonnegut. I’ve been meaning to read something of his for ages, and now I have the excuse.

Recently read: Good Bones by Margaret Atwood (5/5), Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (3.5/5), The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (4/5), Switched by Amanda Hocking (2/5).

On The Reading Pile: The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Wicked by Gregory Maguire, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Cold Fire by Kate Elliott. Possibly not in that order.

What’s in your reading pile at the moment? Any recommendations?

The No Scrubs Book Club: The Book Thief

And so, with cups of tea, the fancy brand name kind of cheese, a chocolate cake, a flan, Tim Tams and a big Boston bun, the first official meeting of the No Scrubs Book Club came to order.

BZ1f7SHCcAAuhr1.jpg-largeSexy disembodied knees.

While one member was too busy to actually start the book (‘Oh wow, it’s about Nazi Germany,’ she observed, scanning the Wikipedia plot summary on her iPhone ten seconds before we started) and three hadn’t actually finished yet (first book, busy time of year, large-ish page count – we don’t judge), feelings about the book were largely positive.

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For those who haven’t come across this massively successful book by Australian author Markus Zusak (who slips a nice little nod to Australia at the end), The Book Thief follows four years in the life of Liesel Meminger during World War II. Willingly given up by her impoverished single mother (her husband a confirmed communist taken away by the Nazis), Liesel and her brother are taken by train to Molching. However, Liesel’s brother dies of ‘a cough that kills’ on the journey, and so Liesel has her first brush with Death and at the same time steals her first book.

In a bold move, Zusak has the novel narrated by Death: a dry, invisible but very busy entity who tells the story in retrospect via their own encounters with Liesel (of which there are three during Liesel’s lifetime) and from the memoir Death rescues from the back of a garbage truck.

‘I waved.
No-one waved back.’

Death’s interest in Liesel’s ordeals during this short period is understandable. Liesel is a thoroughly likeable little girl who’s been through much in her short life – and she doesn’t take it lying down. Although she battles flashbacks of her brothers death every night, Liesel has a sharp tongue inherited from her foster mother (the fabulous, lovingly abrasive Rosa Hubermann) and a mean fist. While Liesel could be considered a vulnerable, and deeply empathetic character, she has no trouble looking after herself.

‘Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. ‘You Saukerl!’ Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. ‘You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”

This sort of unusual coming of age story focuses on the two most important elements in Liesel’s life: her relationships with her loved ones, and her relationship with words.

It may be an indicator of a male author, but Liesel’s most important relationships are with the men in her life: Hans, the only father she’s ever known, Rudy, her best friend and first love, and Max, the young Jewish man her foster parents conceal in their basement. It could also be argued she has a strong relationship with Hitler and Death (who remains unmarked by gender indicators, though interestingly was perceived to be male by most of our book club – though Terry Prachett got the blame in at least two of those cases). Hitler, interestingly and appropriately enough, is a presence throughout the novel despite never physically appearing. Also interesting to note is that, even in Max and Liesel’s imaginations and despite their hatred of him, Hitler always wins.

It was universally agreed that Hans Hubermann was a wonderful person and father, interestingly drawn and with real human depth, and that Rudy was impossible not to love, for all his cheek and charm and kindheartedness. However, it came up that several of us had trouble really caring about Max as a person. While we could sympathise with him for his situation, and cared about his wellbeing for its effect on Liesel and Hans, it was difficult to associate ‘Max the Jew’ with ‘Max the Man’ – it seemed like he was a completely separate person to the man we’d been introduced to via his backstory. While it’s not something I felt personally (though I do believe he wasn’t as richly drawn as Hans or Rudy, but more like the lesser characters of Rosa or Ilsa), I can appreciate the observation. And maybe that was the point. It could be commentary on the dehumanisation of the Jews under the Third Reich. Nothing about Max in hiding was the same as Max the free man.

Liesel’s relationship with words is, to me, something special. Relevant to the backdrop, in a nation won over by poisoned words and whole classes of people oppressed by them, illiterate Liesel understands their power. Over the course of the four years, Liesel learns that words have the power to hurt and heal, using her own to wound when cornered, to distract others when hiding in the bomb shelter, and to bring pieces of the world to a man who doesn’t dare go out and see for himself.

”Don’t punish yourself,’ she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.’

For me, The Book Thief is a lovely story told through a unique lens. The language is beautiful, and Death’s observations on humankind are at once inspiring and heartbreaking. Liesel is a character I warm to and care for, and so are the people around her. Just like Death, I have a special place in my heart for people like her and Rudy.

‘I have hated the words, 
and I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.’ 

The Book Thief gets a 4/5 from me, though according to my Goodreads list I gave it a 5/5 on my first reading. And I am quite annoyed the movie isn’t out in Australia until January.

Our next book will be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Or is it Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? I can never remember. It’s a surprise choice by a member who once gave me a copy of Marquis De Sade to read when we were teenagers (which was… scarring) and loves a good romance.

And next up on my personal reading list:
Good Bones – Margaret Atwood
Breathing GhostsLaekan Zeakemp

Until next time, happy reading!

Readin’ Out

My current, ever growing, never depleting to-read/currently reading list:

BOOKS

– Ashling, Isobelle Carmody (have read many times before, will read many times again)

– Cold Fire, Kate Elliott

– The End of Eternity, Isaac Asimov

– American Gods, Neil Gaiman

– Switched, Amanda Hocking

– Inferno, Dan Brown (My first attempt at Dan Brown)

EBOOKS:

– Divergent, Veronica Roth

– Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

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I hope there’s a parallel universe where all I do is read.