Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

Clutch – Psychic Warfare

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Clutch are, what, 24 years old now?

That’s a very old age in Rock & Roll, especially when your music is about driving rock. Most bands burn out or get tired of rocking. They take the stage, get the girls and lose the frustration that makes for good loud music. Even the best turn artistic. Monster Magnet rediscovered Psychedelia and Local H flirted with Progressive Rock as soon as their started moving units.

Clutch never had that artistic bent. They were all about riffs and catchy hooks. You could lump them up other dumb Hard Rock like Drowning Pool and Nickelback. The only difference between them and Clutch is that Clutch had better hooks and and outsider’s perspective.

Clutch were outsiders, and still were. For all of their rocking and rolling, they had weird lyrics that were poetic as they made little sense. Neil isn’t a big rock star out for the sex and money. He’s a weirdo who likes turning up his weirdness loud.

That makes them an almost perfect band. Combine the hooks with the odd lyrics, and they sound more badass than anyone else. This also gave them a glass ceiling. They were so focused on just kicking rock songs that they will never make a masterpiece. If there was some hope in the past they might knock one out, it’s all gone on Psychic Warfare.

It’s a confusing album that will only make sense depending on what comes after. It’s either the sound of a band giving up and not even trying to make a “Mice and Gods”, or it’s the sound of a band being comfortable in their place and just having fun.

The first tracks rock hard and got the energy, but none of the hooks. They’re driven by sound with the melodies as an afterthought. “X-Ray Visions” isn’t sure what the melody for the hook is. If it wasn’t for Neil’s brilliant lyrics and charisma, the song would’ve been boring to death. “A Quick Death in Texas” is the only chorus that sticks, and would’ve been just another good song on Robot Hive/Exodus.

Clutch may be giving up, but every song is performed with enthusiasm. Clutch sound happy in their place. Neil sounds like he’s happy to spit big words like ‘dynamite’ and ‘telekenetic’ on “X-Ray Visions”. In another band’s hands, it would run out of steam in 30 seconds.

The second best song here is “Noble Savage”, and it’s where the band (again) declares how rock and roll is their life. It doesn’t have a melody, but the band sounds so energized that it’s convincing. Neil might be 43 years, but no one sounds better than him at capturing the appeal of rock and roll. It’s about having fun and letting out your weirdness. Other bands try to convince you they’re having fun by singing about how much sex they have. Neil has a wide-eyed approach that makes “Decapitation Blues” sound more fun than them. That one is about neck damage from headbanging.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Clutch are more interesting in performing live than writing songs. These songs are more about loudness and energy than melody. They’ve been rocking weird for 24 years. How much left do they have to say? Still, if they perform these songs with the energy it promises it means Clutch should keep going. If it’s a sign of things to come though, maybe they should stop. They’re still a melodic rock band, and a good live show is hard to make of bad songs nobody wanted to write.

3 noble savages out of 5

Muse – Drones

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This is a joke, right?

So the previous Muse album was funky and had dubstep. Now they’re going ‘back to basics’ with a straightforward rock sound, keeping the progressive structures and with a concept to boot. The concept is important. It’s about a man who gives in to the mind-controlling government, becomes a ‘drone’, a killing machine only to revolt thanks to the power of love.

I didn’t know 16-year-old angry guys with eggs for brains were a great audience. This whole thing tries so hard to impress them, to give them a soundtrack to reading God Delusion and hating America. There will be no experimentation, no creativity and definitely no dubstep or any of that dancing crap. Dancing is for drones. You’re a teenage angry atheist who isn’t a big fan of government and now knows what life is about.

This is escapism. You do not bring new ideas to your audience and challenge the ones they hold. You flatter them. You tell them what they already think and assure them they’re right. It’s best that you do this without asking why they think what they think. Antichrist Superstar targeted those kids who are nothing, want to be something and can’t decide if they hate themselves more than the world. I’m that target audience, but Manson explored this state of mind from various viewpoints.

Antichrist Superstar (and if we’re going there, Downward Spiral) were inner journies. The reason they come off as vague and analysis of them tends to be slippy is because their stories don’t chronicle solid events. They chronicle how a person’s views and emotions changes, where a certain worldview can lead you. Drones is a blockbuster.

Drones details no personal journey. It’s about a guy who eventually revolts and defeats the government (with the power of love). So, it’s your typical action blockbuster with no personality. You can’t even compare it to good action films. There is music here, but it tends to be bombastic noise. The most interesting idea is the choir thing at the end, which is a worse idea than recording your own farts. The most fun thing here is “Dead Inside”. It also happens to bang in the whip.

When I was young I used to admire musicians for talking about ‘current events’ and ‘problems of the world’. Then I grew up a little, got interested in other forms of art (and became a drone of the whole ‘medium is the message’ thingie) and turned around. It also had something to do with all these musicians hating women, but all these political lyrics ended up meaningless. (hed) pe cared more about fucking. Chuck D’s main message is that he’s a great rapper. Rage Against the Machine were against the government because they’re not buying their records.

There is the occasional Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but music is a pretty awful way to deliver intellectual content. It’s a medium of the hearing sense. It deals with emotions, with what things feel like. Downward Spiral isn’t an intellectual exploration of ‘becoming a machine’ but an emotional one. That’s why Reznor has all these machines banging in the background.

Muse doesn’t even offer an ideas of what it feels like to be a ‘drone’. They’re not considered with sharing emotions but by telling a story. That’s why the album is so blunt. You get both a Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant and lyrics that tell you “I could use someone like you/someone who’ll kill on my command”. What’s hilarious is that Muse felt the need to include both, as if the drill sergeant interlude wasn’t enough. There is no subtley, no humor, nothing. Muse doens’t show but explains, over and over. There’s none of the humor that made the first half of Full Metal Jacket so powerful. The song itself is mishmash between Antichrist Superstar and Pale Emperor. How can you sound like Marilyn Manson and be boring?

Saying over and over that the government is bad and that the military is terrible does nothing. All you do is create an ‘unknown enemy’ with no motivation but pure destruction and death. This is what people hate about America, that the American government is supposedly creating an enemy with no motivation but killing and getting money. It takes one to know one.

The true punchline is how love is going to save us all on “Aftermath”. You have to remember the words of Mike Skinner to understand it. Muse sell out stadiums. They’re rich and they play guitar. They probably have threesomes everyday. If I were in their place, of course I’d believe that love is going to save us all. Sadly, I’m not that attractive and I see a lot of people fighting over love. Maybe it’s better to be a psychopathic killer than crazy for a person, but that’s a disucssion for a different day.

There is music here in the narrative, but it’s not very interesting. The awful concept is far more fun to talk about. The music is very loud but very pleasant to the ear. It’s great if you want to feel rebellious at school, but also intellectual. We all know that when Manson screams it’s pure stupidity, but the falsetto of “Mercy” is intellectual. There’s a dubstep rhythm to “The Handler” and I already talked about how “Dead Inside” bangs, but that’s it. “The Globalist” borrows ideas from Morricone and stretches to 10 minutes while doing nothing. No one really expected an album with titles like “Dead Inside”, “Psycho” and “Revolt” to be good, right?

2 drones out of 5