Ah, pre-solstice December in Maine. Three weeks in which it gets so bleak and dark and cold that I spend most of my free time cooking, eating, hibernating and/or trying to lull my brain into a false sense of nondepression with reruns of Psych and The Mentalist*. When I’m not doing those things, my free time is spent with books that will bring me anywhere, anytime that isn’t here.
Read the last Bookshelves of Doom about 2011 YA showdowns to remember.
Attempting to counteract minor seasonal ennui with a book that chronicles Kristallnacht probably sounds like a bad idea. It even sounds like a bad idea to me, and I’m the one who read it! If I’d realized that Kristallnacht was going to figure in, I’d have given the book a pass until springtime. But, going in, all I knew was this: Jewish boy in Nazi Germany takes boxing lessons from Max Schmeling. Punching Nazis always makes for happy times, at least in my house.
However, as I’ve intimated, Robert Sharenow’s The Berlin Boxing Club isn’t all Scrappy Underdog Wins Out Over Racism and Genocide. It’s much more realistic, and some things depicted in it are based on actual events. So there’s violence against the innocent, there’s loss, need, sacrifice, horror and pain. But there’s also humor, humanity and hope.
Sharenow’s narrator, 14-year-old Karl Stern, has a perspective not often seen in YA World War II stories, as he’s not religious, completely nonpracticing and hasn’t ever even really thought of himself as Jewish. Even more unusual, at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that the Nazi propaganda even works on him, to some extent: He sees religious Jews as “other.” As “different.” And, as he says, “...just like Adolf Hitler, I believed they were ruining everything.”
Seeing his perspective change over the course of the book is almost more interesting than the boxing. (Almost.) The secondary characters, for the most part, are three-dimensional and serve to represent a broad array of different ways—some more noble than others—of surviving a hideous, hideous period of time. It’s a visceral, engaging read, and although I never emotionally connected with it, I certainly never considered putting it down.
My second title this week is equally engaging but totally different. You know how the Star Wars prequels could have—should have—been an excellent, nuanced vision of a brilliant guy with loads of potential slowly going over to the Dark Side? And how they completely failed** at portraying anything less subtle than a frying pan upside the head? Still sad about that? Well, I give you Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, in which you can watch a teenaged Victor Frankenstein head out on his own journey over to the Dark Side.
While some of the chatter surrounding this title has suggested that it reads like a Gothic, you’ll be disappointed if you go in with that assumption. Rather than anything remotely supernatural, it’s all action/adventure/horror with alchemy and weird science. It’s got secret passageways and secret laboratories, a love triangle, spelunking and, like so many other Cybils nominees this year, a few amputations. Like Anakin Skywalker, Victor Frankenstein is cocky, arrogant, impulsive, pushy, secretly insecure...and yet, Victor is somehow still (mostly) likable. It was the perfect escape from my winter doldrums.
Any escapist recommendations for me? I ask only that they feature no snow, sleet, hail, cloudy skies or long, long nights.
*Well, those are the shows this year. Last year it was Luther (Idris Elba, FTW!), among others.
**Yep. Still beating that drum. As an aside, though, The Clone Wars is awesome, and has far more depth—as well as better acting and writing—than the movies.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is impatiently waiting for the next winter share from her CSA.