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The Power of Words in “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been quite busy with work and travel (went to Spain, which was “fantastico”). Anyway, amid the craziness and busy-ness, I managed to read The Book Thief. My daughter had loaned it to me, saying that she loved the book and felt I would love it too, which I certainly did. I had seen the film, but as usual, the book was WAY better than the movie.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the narrative voice, which is the voice of Death. Omniscient narrators are nothing new, but Death as a character certainly provides a unique vantage point from which to tell a tale, particularly one set in Nazi Germany during WWII. The narrator exudes a strange sense of detachment and sadness, which if you are the Grim Reaper is probably how you would need to be. You would need to detach yourself enough to reap souls, but it would be cruel to do so without some feeling of sadness at the many lives cut short.

While this story is so rich and offers much to explore, I’d like to focus on the power of words as presented in the text.

As a writer, I am keenly aware of the power that words have. They are symbols that evoke images, sway opinions, enlighten, and mislead. When people say that the pen is mightier than the sword, what is actually meant is that words are the most powerful weapons anyone can wield.

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. . . It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

(p. 445)

The protagonist, Liesel (the book thief), loves books. But at the height of her despair, she has an epiphany where she fully grasps the power of words as tools to spread evil.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

Then a chapter.

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words?

She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”

(p. 521)

Words, like swords, are double-edged. They can cause immeasurable suffering, but can also heal the deepest wounds. This is why when I see people throwing words around on 24-news stations or on social media, I cannot help but feel concerned. If people would only pause and consider before reacting with words, we would avoid a lot of pain and conflict.

We all need to choose our words more carefully. I, for one, will try to be vigilant regarding how I use these powerful tools, and hopefully I can use them to advance society and humanity.

Thanks for taking the time to read my “words.” Cheers!

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“March: Book Three” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This third volume concludes the trilogy, and it does so in a powerful and moving way. The story climaxes with the escalating tension in the civil rights struggle, which includes the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama State Troopers.

There is so much relevant and important commentary in this text, that I struggled with what to cover in my post (hence a lapse between when I finished reading and when I wrote this post). Rather than try to cover all the socio-political issues addressed in the book, I figured I would focus on a couple of sections that really stood out for me personally.

The first thing that really resonated with me personally was a section about the press and their focus on the white volunteers who were involved in the civil rights movement at the time.

There had been several complaints about the white volunteers trying to take over. It also left a number of people sore that the press had focused much of their attention on the white workers, often identified by name, shown working alongside nameless blacks.

(p. 53)

I had experienced something like this personally when I lived in South Florida and I went to protest the repatriation of Haitian refugees at the INS offices. I was interviewed by the news and featured prominently on television because they wanted to know why a white American was out there protesting with a large group of black Haitians. For me, it was a basic human rights issue, and I have to say I felt pained that the media chose to focus on me and not on the Haitians who were literally fleeing for their lives from the Duvalier regime.

The next thing that really struck me deeply was a conversation between Lewis and Malcolm X. Malcolm stressed that the real issue of the civil rights problem is economic, that it is the disparity between the rich and the poor, a rift that continues through this day and is the cause of much of the suffering around the world.

Malcolm talked about the need to shift our focus from race to class, both among one another and between ourselves and the white community. He believed that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. Malcolm was saying, in effect, that it is a struggle for the poor–for those who have been left out and left behind–and that it transcends race.

(p. 136)

I also learned from the book that Malcolm was assassinated on John Lewis’ birthday, which was February 21, 1965 (Lewis was born on February 21, 1940).

Toward the end of the book is a touching section that depicts Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing the federal government’s enforcement of voting rights. The speech is included in its entirety and is worth reading closely, but I just want to focus on one key phrase.

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

(p. 242)

In the recent election here in the U.S., and in past elections, I have been sadly astounded at voter apathy and the sense that many people have that their vote does not mean anything, or that it is better to cast a protest vote to send a message to the “establishment” instead of voting for the better of the two primary candidates. While I certainly empathize with the sentiment of these people, considering the vote as something frivolous or useless will ultimately lead to the loss of its power as a vehicle for social change. We must never forget that gains are slow coming, but that progress can be torn down very quickly.

Anyway, I highly recommend this graphic trilogy to all readers, young and old. The books are inspiring, infuriating, and important.

Here are links to my posts on the first two books:

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“March: Book Two” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This book opens with an image of two hands shaking: one black and one white. For me, that sums up what this book is about: reaching across the race divide.

This volume focuses on the increased violence that blacks faced as the civil rights movement gained momentum. It can be difficult to read at times, but the message is so powerful and important, that the story must be told. One part really pained me. It was depicting an attack on civil rights activists in Montgomery, AL on May 20, 1961. A mom had brought her young boy to the demonstration and was encouraging him to partake in the violence.

“C’mon… harder, Danny! That’s my boy… git him! Them eyes… git them eyes!”

(p. 75)

It’s an image I could not shake, and it reinforced what I already believed—that racism is taught. It is something that is passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe that hatred is a natural state, but it is something that is learned.

Another thing that was not surprising yet resonated with me is how religion is twisted and used to justify hatred. This is evident in a quote from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

“The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the negro in Africa, separated from all other races.”

(p. 114)

Without question, though, the most powerful part of this volume is John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The book contains two versions of the speech. The edited version, which was the one he delivered, is presented with images in the graphic novel format. The original version, which was deemed a little too radical by some in the movement, is included as an appendix and is a great historical document.

The speech itself is too long to include here, but I encourage you to read it in its entirely. I will close the post with the closing words of John Lewis’ historic speech.

We will march through the streets of the south; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated south into a thousand pieces, and put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say: “Wake up, America! Wake up!!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

(p. 171)

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“March: Book One” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This is the first book in a three-volume graphic novel about civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. I had heard this discussed on a couple podcasts that I listen to and it piqued my interest, so when I heard that Andrew Aydin, one of the writers, was doing a talk at a local indie bookstore, I went and listened to what he had to say. I was so moved and inspired that I purchased the first volume and had him sign it.

The book describes Lewis’ early days of activism, when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins which were aimed at ending segregation. The stories of his past are presented as recollections from the Congressman on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, showing just how far civil rights have advanced in less than 50 years.

Before I talk about the text, I want to say something about Nate Powell’s artwork. It is excellent and visually captures the pain and emotion of that turbulent time. In addition, the choice to do all the artwork in black and white symbolically represents the contrast and division regarding race at that time in American history.

While in college, Lewis became inspired by the Social Gospel, which essentially asserted that one must apply the spiritual values from the Gospel to address social issues.

I loved the new ideas college was introducing me to, in religion and philosophy–but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Social Gospel. Here I was reading about justice, when there were people out there working to make it happen. I started to feel guilty for not doing more. I became restless.

(p. 65)

Later on, Lewis recounts his first meeting with Martin Luther King, who agreed to help Lewis try to get into Troy State University. King makes Lewis aware of the risks involved in challenging the State of Alabama and the Board of Education.

King: To attend Troy State, we’ll have to sue the State of Alabama and the Board of Education. You’re not old enough to file a suit–you’ll have to get your parents’ okay. They’re going to have to sign. But if you want to go, we’ll help–we’ll raise the money to file those suits, and we’ll support you all the way. But you must keep in mind–your parents could lose their jobs. Your family home could be bombed or burned. You may get hurt–or your family may get hurt. I don’t know what will happen.

(p. 71)

While reading this graphic novel, I learned that during the civil rights movement, an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) published a comic about MLK that was intended to teach young people about non-violent resistance.

F.O.R. had also published a popular comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which explained the basics of passive resistance and non-violent action as tools for desegregation.

(p. 76)

In his talk at the bookstore, Andrew Aydin told the attendees how he convinced John Lewis that the graphic novel format was the best way to tell his story. I am in full agreement. While the story itself is compelling and moving, it’s the images that make this such a visceral read. I encourage everyone to pick up this book and read it, especially in a time when intolerance seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

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“Be Here Now” by Ram Dass

Several months ago, I went to see the film “Dying to Know” which was about Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who changed his name to Ram Dass.  The film reminded me that Ram Dass’ book, Be Here Now, was one I have been meaning to read but had not gotten around to. So I decided to bump it up on the list and recently finished reading it.

The book is essentially the hippie’s guide to meditation and mindfulness. It’s lavishly illustrated with surreal psychedelic spiritual images that aid the reader in tuning in to the proper state of consciousness when reading this text.

The book is divided into four sections:

  • Journey – The Transformation: Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D into Baba Ram Dass—This first section details Ram Dass’ explorations in consciousness expansion through the use of psychedelic drugs with Timothy Leary, which ultimately led him on a journey to the east where he met a guru and discovered his spiritual path.
  • From Bindu to Ojas—This heavily illustrated section, which comprises the bulk of the book, contains Dass’ spiritual musings and thoughts.
  • Cook Book for a Sacred Life—This section offers suggestions and practical advice for individuals starting on the spiritual path.
  • Painted Cakes Do Not Satisfy Hunger—This final section is a long list of suggested reading. As I perused this list, my own reading list swelled exponentially.

While the language of the text is very hippie dippy, and feels a little dated now, the spiritual insights are still profound and relevant. There is way too much to share in a single blog post, but I will share a few that resonated deeply with me, and I encourage you to take the time to read the book closely and ponder what Ram Dass offers.

Georges I. Gurdjieff, a westerner who went on this higher trip or at least on a large part of the trip, said: you don’t seem to understand you are in prison. If you are to get out of prison the first thing you must realize is: you are in prison. If you think you’re free, you can’t escape.

(p. 42)

Reading this made me think of the average American. Americans love to believe they are free: free to seek happiness, pursue the careers they want, travel, elect who they like, etc. But American freedom is just an illusion. We are constantly being manipulated by media, advertising, peer pressure, and so forth. Americans have allowed themselves to be enslaved by a consumer society that profits from their exploitation. But don’t ever try to tell an American that he or she is not free. Americans are quick to fight in the defense of their belief in freedom.

That psychosis business is an interesting business. If you go through the doorway too fast and you’re not ready for it you’re bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness. You may land anywhere and lots of people end up in mental hospitals. The reason they do is: they went through the door with their ego on.

(p. 98)

We hear this warning over and over again: it is important to stay grounded when doing spiritual work. I have witnessed people close to me slip into mental illness because they explored consciousness without remaining properly grounded. It is sad, because you are powerless to do anything for that person. They become trapped within their own subconscious and can no longer function in this plane of reality.

When your center is firm, when your faith is strong and unwavering, then it will not matter what company you keep. Then you will see that all beings are on the evolutionary journey of consciousness. They differ only in the degree that the veil of illusion clouds their vision. But for you . . . you will see behind the veil to the place where we are all ONE.

(p. 53)

This is something I need to remind myself about on a regular basis. With all the craziness, intolerance, and fear that I see on a daily basis, I need to remember that all of us are spiritual beings on the path, and we all progress at our own pace. I have to resist the temptation to judge others based on where I am on my journey. All I can do is follow my own course and maybe I might inspire another person on his or her path. What a blessing that would be!

Thanks so much for stopping by. And remember, don’t cling to the past or obsess about the future, just be here now, because this moment is all we really have. Everything else is a mental construct and an illusion.

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“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” by Phoebe Gloeckner

This book is kind of a downer, but at the same time, it made me feel grateful. It’s the tale of a 15-year-old girl who becomes sexually involved with her mother’s boyfriend, which causes a downward spiral of addiction, mental illness, and self-loathing. As a parent, I am so very grateful that none of my daughters got this messed up.

What I really liked about this book is the way the author mixed mediums. While it is written in the form of a diary, it reads like a novel. In addition, the author included her own drawings, snippets of graphic novel style panel illustrations, and letters written by the characters. So it felt like a blend of novel, diary, graphic novel, and epistolary. For me, that is the book’s strongest asset.

As a regular journal writer, I connected with a scene where Minnie (the protagonist) ponders whether her journal writing is an act of creative expression.

Let’s take a little time out and be completely serious for a moment—my writing in this book has become a sort of habit, and a good one. I do think my writing has improved because of it. Would you or would you not consider this journal a creative endeavor?

(p. 65)

Personally, I consider any act of self-expression to be a creative endeavor. Journal writing, especially if one is exploring the deeper parts of the self, is definitely a creative act. Additionally, any practice that one gets writing hones the skill of crafting the written word.

One of the effects of addiction on a person is a deep feeling of isolation. Throughout the book, Gloeckner captures that feeling in beautifully sad words.

I left feeling like the center of the ocean, deep and quiet. Glowing particles of dust or old dead fish atoms slowly filter down from the top through the water. The sun gradually leaves them. They settle down later at the bottom, seven miles below. Dark. Heavy, heavy water.

(p. 107)

As much as this book is disturbing, it does end on a more optimistic note. Without giving away too much, Minnie ends her diary by deciding to start a new one, which reflects the start of a new chapter in her life.

This diary is almost full. The binder rings can barely hold another few pages but I didn’t get a new diary binder yet. Maybe I’ll go downtown to Patrick’s…they probably have a nice serious-looking black binder with heavy-duty rings that won’t burst open. That’s what I want. I want to get a good one.

I haven’t been writing at all because I’ve been waiting to start a new diary. A brand-new diary is like a brand-new life, and I’m ready to leave this one behind me. But since I don’t have a new binder, it’s just too bad: I’ll have to tack a few pages onto my old life.

(p. 285)

Our lives are stories that are being written every moment, and at the risk of sounding cliché, we can change the story or turn the page any time we want. That is the beauty of life and one of the things that gave me hope in my personal dark periods.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an inspired day.

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Final Thoughts on the Qur’an

As I was nearing the end of the text, my wife asked me if I had any thoughts as to why so many people are turning to the Qur’an for spiritual and religious guidance. I thought about it and told her that in my opinion, it is because the text is very simple and offers practical guidelines on how to behave. There is mass appeal in simplicity. And in fact, the Qur’an asserts that the messages are being presented in a way that the people of this time and place can easily understand the lessons contained within.

We have explained things in various ways in this Qur’an, so that people might take notice…

(p. 177)

We have made it easy to learn lessons from the Qur’an: will anyone take heed?

(p. 351)

The following is an example of a practical lesson from the Qur’an. It addresses hypocrites and how one should deal with them.

When the hypocrites come to you [Prophet], they say, ‘We bear witness that you are the Messenger of God.’ God knows that you truly are His Messenger; God bears witness that the hypocrites are liars—they use their oaths as a cover and so bar others from God’s way: what they have been doing is truly evil—because they professed faith and then rejected it, so their hearts have been sealed and they do not understand. When you see them [Prophet], their outward appearance pleases you; when they speak, you listen to what they say. But they are like propped-up timbers—they think every cry they hear is against them—and they are the enemy. Beware of them. May God thwart them! How devious they are!

(p. 374)

As a whole, this is definitely not my favorite religious/spiritual text. There is a lot that just does not resonate with me. But I am glad I read it, because I feel like I have a better understanding of the Muslim faith, and because I did gain some insight from the text.

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