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Like an old friend who’s been through a journey with you, sometimes irritating, sometimes boring but most times providing warm companionship, The Little Friend came to its conclusion tonight as I sat in my reading couch, reading and turning the pages in silence, engrossed and excited and yet, knowing that with each page, I am closer to saying goodbye to the adorable characters – feisty Harriet Cleve Dufresnes and Hely Hull. So, very reluctantly, I read on until at midnight, I reached the end.

The pace quickened considerably towards the middle part of the last chapter as consequences of Harriet’s plans play out with a deadly ending. Just as suspicion got the better of her, her shennanigans around the Ratliff residence unsettled the mind of Farish Ratliff and pitted brother against brother as each one suspected the other of plotting against him. Things come to ahead when Danny pulls out a gun and shoots Farish in the head and neck, and then kills his two police dogs.

Tartt does a good job of building the suspense up in the driving scene, with Danny getting all jittery and worked up over his need to urinate – of all things! And suddenly, it explodes onto the scene – gun pulled out, trigger pulled twice, Farish slumps over. Danny steps out of the car, throws the gun away, recomposes himself, retrieves the gun and walks back to the car, and through the window, shoots Farish’s two police dogs in the car. And shortly after that, another scene with Harriet inside the water tower where the Ratliffs’ illicit stash of meth and ice was kept hidden, and an angry Danny Ratliff pushing Harriet under the water trying to drown her. She survives by holding her breath and pretending to be lifeless. He releases his grip and walks away, but his weight on the rickety tower causes the timber planks to give way and he falls into the dark water of the tank just as Harriet scrambles up a rusty ladder to safety. He grabs a hold of her ankle, she kicks him away and he tries to go for the ladder which in turns, breaks away. And he falls back into the water, jumping up to the surface to breath.

In the end, he survives after two days of bobbing up and down in the tank; is arrested for the ‘attempted murder’ of his brother – much to the relief of Harriet who thought she’d be responsible for his death in the tank when she left him in there. We are told that Farish survived the shooting but was not expected to “make it through the night”.

So some questions linger. What’s Danny Ratliff going to do about Harriet when he gets out of jail? He knew her face and connected her to Edie Cleve. We know now that Danny Ratliff was not responsible for Robin’s death, so who is? That’s unsolved.

The Little Friend in conclusion – I guess it’s all about people wanting to move on. And some people who are contented to just stay in the present, not wanting more or less, no dreams for better things. And in some ways, it’s about people being stuck in the past and unable to let go of events that happened long ago – events that happened out of their control and yet, controlling them in every way.

I still feel sad, as I always do when a book comes to an end, to say goodbye to the characters that I’ve grown attached to. Harriet and Hely, and her aunts. Ida Rhew. The book now goes on my shelf but I know whenever I feel like it, I can still reach out for it, turn to a page early in the book and once more, little Harriet Cleve Dufresnes comes to life and everything starts anew.

The Little Friend is a thick book and it took me exactly a month to finish it, reading almost everyday, sometimes a page a day because of my schedule. Out of 10, I give it a 7. The pace is nice, Tartt’s language is simple wonderful and very very descriptive. She’s brilliant at describing scenes and you can even almost hear the soundtrack to them as if watching a movie. A bit protracted though the parts with the Ratliffs but I suppose that was necessary for the reader to make a connection with them and to understand what they were all about. Would I recommend this? Yes, most definitely.

I’m almost done reading Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, just one more night and I ought to be able to proudly put that book on the shelf! Last night (a Sunday night), I sat up reading – quite involuntarily – till 2am – no thanks to the 2 cups of coffee I had after dinner. Before I had books as an option, I used to lay in bed with eyes wide open listening to the airconditioner blowing in the darkness. That and the sound of my heart beating, or palpitating rather induced by caffeine. This rhythm would accompany all the nonsensical thoughts going on in my head as I debate whether to look at my wristwatch or not. It’d be comforting to know it’s only 1am .. or is it? Could it be … maybe it’s 5am already and I still haven’t slept a wink? And if so, boy – do I have a shitty day ahead of me…

In The Little Friend, it’s slowly emerging now that the Ratliffs had nothing to do with little Robin’s death, and that Danny Ratliff (being the little boy who was chased off from the Dufresnes yard) has been unfairly suspected of the murder by Harriet and Hely. And what drama has emerged from the two’s attempt at revenge – throwing a live cobra off from an overhead pass down into the Ratlliff’s open top convertible in the hopes of it biting one of the Ratliffs – which it does, but unfortunately the innocent Gum – the Ratliff brothers’ grandmother who, in her impatience, had took it upon herself to drive the car.

I’m trying to speed up reading this book and hopefully finish it tonight and start on The Mascot, the true story of a 5 year old Jewish boy who survived the massacre of his family by the SS and the Nazi occupation of Latvia during World War II by hiding his Jewish background and becoming a “mascot” of an SS extermination squad, living with them and ultimately, finding protection from this unlikely place.

It’s a Monday today. A rainy one and I sit now in my office looking out of the hundred year old Peranakan building windows, counting the number of times the drops of water streak down the glass in front of me. The white wooden frame has cracked over the years, the lines visible but still steadfastly holding the glass panels in place though rattling when the wind blows. Outside, I’ve planted a row of bougainvilleas – their leaves drenched in the rain, but limp looking (as they always do on a Monday because no one is in the office to water them on weekends). There are orange and crimson blooms though not as many as I would like to see. Perhaps a few more weeks of proper care and soil fertilisation will do the trick.

Beyond the windows and my plants, across the street below is a river. Vessels ply up and down as they have for more than a century. My late grandfather, whose stately home now houses my office, would have seen this same scene played out daily during his lifetime. I sit here, and I think about my own daughter, who turns one this coming Sunday, and I wonder if it is possible that one day, when I too am gone, she might also sit by these grand windows and ponder the same as she gazes out to the river.

It’s a Monday, as I was saying. It’s the beginning of a new week; of days yet to be revealed and events to be unfolded,  and yet Mondays are a sad reminder of the week that was; forever unaltered, and we’re forced to remember it like that.

The bayous that are conjured up in your mind in Tartt’s Mississipian landscape look shallow and seemingly peaceful on the surface, but beneath the cold and dark brackish water lurks an unseen inhabitant, a psychological horror that grows darker as you turn the pages.

Forget for a while the playfulness of the 12 year old protagonist and her friend. Put aside their childish antics. Let’s not pretend. The Little Friend, is a dark dark story and it starts with a boy hanging from a tree. Murder.

It is the story of a haunting by the apparitions of death and memories. They stand in the room in the dark corners at the edge of the light. You know they’re there but you close your eyes and think of something else. As if that would make them less real. But they stay; a reminder of a decayed past that still breathes and grips you until you look at their faces and affirm their presence. But we turn away and deny their existence. And this becomes our self-inflicted fear.

Think The Skeleton Key. Think magnificent white houses, eerie and surrounded by water tupelo trees and the swampy marshlands of the Gulf Coast. Think New Orleans, gumbo and jambalaya. Think of the hanging boy in the tree.

Harriet Cleve Dufresnes sees this haunting. She was 2 months old when the haunting began. Her brother Robin was found hanging from a tupelo tree in her backyard. Dead at 9, his was death too tragic to deal with and one which spelt the demise of Harriet’s own family. Unsolved, it led to the departure of Harriet’s father to another town. Work, apparently. Harriet’s mother, Charlotte is overcome by guilt and grief and never recovers becoming only a shell, sleeping during the day, and just drifting day by day. Her mind lost, and wallowing in pain yet no one talks about Robin. Charlotte’s coterie of aunts all living nearby – spinsters and widows – provide Harriet with the motherly care she craves but does not get from Charlotte.

There is some comic relief in the form of Hely Hull, Harriet’s best friend and loyal sidekick – my favourite character so far (I’m up to page 280). Together with Harriet (who he is hopeless in love with, by the way) the duo set off to investigate the strange death of her brother and exact revenge on the person they suspect to be the killer.

I’m past the mid-point of the book, and somewhat languishing for a few weeks now in the middle of conversations between the ‘villains’ of the book, the Ratliffs (Danny, Farish, Eugene and Curtis). I’ve been in and out, listening to them talk about snakes and healing, about God’s calling and preaching the Word. I find this part boring and have skipped a few paragraphs only to go back to read them just in case I missed something important for the later part of the book. (See Part 2)

Up to this point of the book, I’m enjoying Tartt’s style of writing. I suppose the pace is alright for me generally. Just the part with the Ratliffs I find tiresome. I love the way Tartt describes things, her diction for the different characters. I’m having a laugh reading through Harriet’s housekeeper Ida Rhew’s dialogue, imagining how she’d sound like. I used to dislike listening to Southern American English but this book’s changed that for me.

This ends Part 1 of my review for The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt.

I’m a sucker for all things Third Reich. I grew up watching movies and documentaries on World War II and was (still am) very impressed by German military prowess – the vehicles, army units, battle formations, badges and insignias and yes, those Hugo Boss-designed military uniforms.

Lest I be seen as a sympathiser, I must say for the record that I am very aware of the dark side of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or NSDAP and the destruction its ideology caused. The comprehension why intellectuals and intelligent thinking people could be reduced to a mass of cattle blindly following this ideology of hatred and evil propagated by one man has until today eluded me. Are his oratory skills alone enough to cast such a spell over the German people?

That’s oversimplifying things, I know. But think of the Third Reich and Hitler’s face comes to mind. So much has been written about this monster of a man and I have over the years read much material on him and wartime Germany. But The Hitler Book is different. This book is in a league of its very own.

The Hitler Book is actually a dossier prepared by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) based on its capture and interrogation of 2 of Hitler’s aides – his valet, Heinz Linge, and his personal adjutant, Otto Gunsche. Both were transported to the Soviet Union and detained for interrogation before being released in the mid-1950s with the intelligence being passed on to Stalin for his personal reading.

As the nature of the source implies, the Hitler Book offers a “behind the scenes” look at Hitler’s inner circle and private life. From the early days of his rise to the Chancellorship and his transformation into der Fuhrer; his confident one-upmanship in pursuing Lebensraum and the declaration of war to the change in fortunes and his subsequent decline into an eccentric recluse prone to losing his temper and increasingly out of touch with the realities of the battlefront – all these events are vividly recorded by his aides – till the end of the war, with the suicide of Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun and the attempts at escape by those still alive in the Fuhrerbunker from the surrounding Soviet forces in Berlin.

The transformation of Adolf Hitler and his descent into a raging then empty shell of a man parallels the progression of the recorded events. Almost symbolic of this fall is the change in settings from the Reichstag to huge palatial buildings to smaller and yet smaller bunkers that Hitler is forced to hide in as the book draws to its close, detailing the Fuhrer’s final days and the going-ons in the bunker.

I enjoyed this book tremendously, reading it nightly and hoping it would not end so quickly. Out of desperation when it finally did, I resorted to reading the Foreword, Translator’s Preface, Editors’ Introduction, Editors’ Afterword, Notes and Table of Comparative Third Reich military ranks and British/US equivalents.

This book is not really about the inner-workings of the Reich but more about the life of Adolf Hitler, as seen by his aides. So, it is a different offering from the other titles out there written on Hitler.If you are a WWII history buff like me and enjoy gossip-style literature, then I think you’ll enjoy this one.

There are some books that inspire you. Some that touch your heart and warm your soul.

Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero tried to touch me in all the wrong places and it made me angry. It made me curse and it made me hate him and the words he chose to use. (Why so angry, you ask? I’ll tell you why.)

I’ll be frank. I read only up to page 100 of the book so I can’t say I’ve read the whole book. But I read enough of the book to come to the conclusion that I did not like it even one bit!

Reading it, I couldn’t get a feel for the time or place; the scenes seemed to jump to and fro, and everything felt disjointed. I did not enjoy the dialogue either and often times I felt lost as to who was speaking.

This book just felt pretentiously artsy and labouriously forced, as if a confusing and directionless storyline could be equated with prose or literary genius. “Try-hard artsy” is how I would describe this book. Painful on the mind and I truly hated it.

I have never read anything by Ondaatje. I’ve seen The English Patient and thought it was ok, so-so. I doubt I’ll be picking up another book by Ondaajte anytime soon.

Only thing I liked about this book was the cover, and that in itself is a lesson to me to never ever again judge a book by its cover.

I like this book. It reminds me of the Diary of Anne Frank, though told from a third person perpective by Death (aka the Grim Reaper) himself.

Some booksellers categorise this under Young Adults, and some under Adults. But regardless, it is something worth reading. A beautiful story of a young girl, the difficult circumstances of war and the strength of love and kindness to pull us all through times of adversity.

The story begins in 1939. It is winter and all is white. Nine-year-old Liesel Meminger, our protagonist is on a train with her mother and little brother traveling towards Munich … and Death comes a-visiting.

He sees the family of three on the train. Six-year-old Werner is coughing and Death stops to visit – he collects a soul, leaving only two to continue the journey. Outside Munich, where the train stops (the driver does not know what to do with the body of the little boy on board), Liesel and her mother lay Werner to rest. As the gravediggers dig through the snow, one of them drops a book – The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which Liesel steals despite not being able to read. Thus bringing about her name and the title of the book, and a touching story of life in wartime Germany and in particular, on Himmel Street in the small town of Molching where Liesel is sent to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann for the duration of the war.

The Book Thief is rich with imagery which Zusak manages to convey brilliantly and at the right pace. As Death says at the beginning of the book:-

“It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery.”

Branded a “Kommunist” by the Nazis and unable to afford the care of her daughter, Liesel’s mother leaves her with the Hubermanns, who raise her as their own. Rosa Hubermann tells Liesel to call her Mama and Hans, Papa. She in turn (and in much loving endearment), calls Liesel a “Saumensch” or pig. Rosa is full of swearing and bluster, and Hans the opposite – caring, patient and loving. He teaches Liesel how to read and together they read in the wee hours of the morning when all is quiet and Rosa asleep. It is an inspiring tale, showing the determination of a girl under the worst of circumstances to learn the ability to read and to open up a world hitherto unknown to her – the world of books, and the beauty … and power of words.

It’s about kindness and understanding that overcomes State ideology and hatred. The Hubermanns repay a debt of gratitude by taking in a Jewish fistfighter by the name of Max Vanderburg, sheltering and hiding him in their basement, away from the prying eyes of fellow Germans on Himmel Street. Liesel is sworn to secrecy never to talk about this to anyone. A secret that had its roots in the first war in which Hans fought alongside Erik Vandenburg a comrade, friend, fellow German.. a Jewish man, before that notion made a German unworthy of citizenship, and to be regarded as sub-human.

Hans owes his life to Erik Vandenburg who had assigned Hans to a desk job while the rest, including Erik, went to the battlefield and were killed. He promises Erik’s widow that he will help them should they need him. The chance to keep this promise manifests itself with the appearance of Erik Vandenburg’s son, Max one night in the Hubermann’s living room.

With Hans, Max teaches Liesel how to read, and writes a book especially for her called “The Stand Over Man”. I thought these scenes were especially warm and touching. I imagined Liesel huddling downstairs in the basement, cold but smiling and reading with the man in hiding. It is a cruel world that drives people to live like this yet they struggle and survive, and hold on to the things that make us human.

As the book progresses, we see more of Liesel’s world. Just as Anne Frank had her “one true love” Peter Schiff, Liesel has Rudy Steiner, a friend and ‘partner in crime’ who goes along with her on her many stealing adventures, climbing over fences and into fruit orchards at first and then into the Mayor’s library to steal books.

In essence, The Book Thief is about our frailties; that stripped of our veneer, we are all the same; each one of us longing for the love and company of another to get us through one day at a time. From the scene where Hans Hubermann gives bread to a Jew who is being forced to march by German soldiers which results in him being whipped and sent off later to join the Reich’s war effort to the heartbreaking scene where Liesel is reunited with Max Vandenburg, who after leaving her house and missing for months, is found by Liesel in one of the marches through town of Jewish camp inmates – they hug eachother in the midst of the mass of marchers out of sight of the German soldiers: kindness and compassion are naturally within all of us. It has to be.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It has been two weeks since I finished it (took me about 2 weeks, reading almost nightly for an hour or so before bed) and the story and characters remain fresh in my mind. I would recommend this as light reading though the subject matter has a lot to do with death and dying. Worth it. Out of 5, I give it a 3. Pace is just nice, not too slow. Story is moving and stays with you.

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