Thursday, 30 June 2011

Open ~ by Andre Agassi

There is something very fitting in reading 'Open' Andre Agassi's autobiography, during the Wimbledon tennis season, it somehow brings the whole text into sharper focus. I have to admit that I am not a huge tennis fan, but this book still interested me. The introductory chapters, especially, dealing with Andre's early training, were fascinating. His brutally honest depiction of his equally brutal father was startling and very brave. He tells all and shows much anger towards the man who, while Andre was still in the crib, made a mobile from tennis balls and taped a table-tennis bat to his son's wrist. He was a man obsessed.

Much of the book deals with the constant struggle, physical and psychological, that Andre had to cope with all his sporting life. His love-hate relationship with tennis is made much of in the book, especially at the beginning. This clever use of antithesis surely came courtesy of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, J.R. Moehringer, who helped Agassi put the book together. With his assistance, the text is an enjoyable read - for the most part. However, I thought it was overly long and, as you might expect, went into detailed descriptions of many, many tennis matches - who scored what point, who missed a serve etc.- until I could feel the exhaustion of the players myself. Having read the book I feel quite jaded and relieved that Agassi retired when he did because I could not have faced one more match!

As with any good autobiography, the reader comes to expect some juicy revelations and of these there are plenty in the book. I think Brooke Shields comes across least favourably, but I have to say I sided with her much of the time. Living with a man who would not (could not) speak for days on end after losing a match must have been difficult, especially when his idea of having a good time was vegging at home on the sofa, or eating a burger! He was unspeakably unfair in his treatment of her, proposing when he actually wanted to break-up with her, although being so wrapped up in himself, he probably did not even notice this. Don't get me wrong, Agassi narcissism is completely understandable, being trained to do one thing - be the best tennis player in the world. How could you not be self-obsessed, as your body, your mind, is your meal ticket. Yet there was so little of the real world present in this text. World events, if they take place outside the limits of a tennis court, never make it into the book. As such, it is a very closed, limited, depiction of life, which captures perfectly the stifled, suffocating life as a tennis pro.

This is in complete contrast with the book's title 'Open', which has so many connotations for a tennis player. More than anything, it refers to the openness with which Agassi tries to tell his story. However, although the book is filled to the brim with details of various matches, there is very little of consequence about his relationship with his mother, ex-girlfriends, his wives and his children. They are only mentioned in relation to his tennis, and as such the book reads like a series of diary entries,going from match to match in chronological order, with people, like his father and friends, suddenly disappearing from the story. It seems clear that the openness of the title only refers to HIS own story and does not relate to the people around him, whose privacy he protectively maintains. There is an exception of course; his opponents. They are fair game for his venomous tongue. They are a collection of cheats, poor-losers, begrudgers and robots. He certainly holds nothing back when he is describing them, with his greatest disdain being reserved for Jimmy Connors.

Above all, the book shows how lonely the life of a tennis player can be and how lonely Andre Agassi was for such a long time. He carefully surrounded himself with a series of father-figures, people he needed, to help him cope with the various aspects of his life, his trainer Gil being the real hero of the book. I think everyone should have a Gil in their lives, to frighten away bullies, sit with you in operating-theaters and stand guard outside your apartment in a scary city. This is ultimately a story of endurance; an inside look into the ups and downs of life in tennis, a must for anyone who is a fan of the game, and enjoyable even for those who just like a good story. Worth a read? Yes. Just grab yourself some Robinson's Barely Water, a bowl of strawberries and cream, and you will have yourself a front row seat in Andre Agassi's private players'box for a match you won't forget.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Book Thief ~ by Markus Zusak

There are so many reasons why I just LOVE this book:  the characters... the characters … the characters... I just can’t seem to get them out of my mind.  Right now I can’t even bring myself to find a home for this book on my shelf.  I just can’t bear to say goodbye, not yet.

But there is another reason why I love ‘The Book Thief’: so much of the book is about books, writing them, stealing them, reading them - it’s not surprising considering that Hitler’s power began with words and a book - Mein Kampf - translated as My Struggle.  Hitler’s own book becomes part of Liesel’s story when it is painted over and re-used as blank paper for others to write on.  In this wonderfully symbolic way, Hitler’s ideas are erased,  obliterated and replaced by a story of love and hope. What a wonderful piece of literary justice!  

The book is all about the power of words, to warp and twist, as with Hitler, or to save and heal, as with Liesel.   Liesel uses the words of the ’Word Shaker’, a short story within the text, to empower Max.  The words ‘climbed onto him’, and so he grew in stature, remembering his own story, the courage moving from her to him.  She reminds him of what he has written, words that he wrote to make her feel better.  She sends  them back to him.  The result is powerful and liberating.  

Hitler’s so-called ‘struggle’ is counterbalanced by the real, daily struggle of ordinary people in Germany during World War Two, a major theme of the book. So many characters are living on the edge, living day by day until the next meal, usually consisting of mama’s unpalatable, watery, pea soup.  For the entire book the central characters are starving.  Rudy is constantly talking about food and finally it is this ceaseless hunger that leads the children into thievery.  They raid an orchard and then make themselves ill from over-eating, but they daren’t take their loot home, for fear of a beating.  Like a scene from ‘Huckleberry Finn’, or ‘Oliver Twist’,  Zusak explores the universality of childhood; the adventure, the skulduggery and the fun, yet choosing war-time Germany for the setting.

It’s refreshing to see this brutal war from the German perspective.  We learn that there is much diversity of wealth, from the Mayor on the hill, to the lowest, starving Jew, bending to pick up a crust of bread on the street.  We see varying degrees of anti-sematism too: the children are made join the Hitler Youth organisation on turning 10, and must attend even if they do not wish to do so.  All adult men, even those secretly hiding a Jew in the basement, must join the Nazi Party.  Mr Steiner does not hate the Jews, but he is not unhappy when their businesses are destroyed, for as a tailor, it means more work for him.  We learn that not all Germans were Nazis, that such sweeping statements reveal nothing of the many subtleties that made up German society in WWII, which was as diverse as any we have today.  There are heroes and villains as always, but how novel to have some German heroes to consider for a change.  
The characters are beautifully drawn, so memorable: a boy who paints his face black and runs like Jesse Owens; a neighbour who spits on the door every time she passes; a mayor’s wife who silently sits in a library missing her son; Alex Steiner, alone in his tailor's shop, missing his whole family; neighbours crowded together in the basement, listening to a little girl reading a story.  Like the best loved creations of Charles Dickens, each of Zusak’s characters have a visual symbol that we associate with only them.  Consider Max, hair like feathers or twigs; Mama, a wardrobe; Papa, a silver eyed accordion; Rudy, with hair the colour of lemons; Ilsa, her fluffy hair and bath robe; and Alex Steiner, a wooden man, with hair like splinters.  Their descriptions are so very visual that these characters are etched into our memories. I cannot think of Rudy without a lump forming in my throat, or Hans, wonderful, darling papa, without the distant sound of an accordion playing or the scent of tobacco rising somewhere in my mind. Even tough, booming Rosa crept under my skin and as for Liesel, I think I will always carry a piece of her with me, most noticeably present whenever I visit a library.

And finally, if you read the book blurb and learn, with horror, that Death is the narrator, please fear not.  He is warm, considerate and simply charming.  He seems to love the characters as much as we do.  He, too, is a book-lover, an idea which really made me smile. How could we fail to like a fellow book-lover?  He has re-read Liesel’s story thousands of times.  In fact, he is a rescuer of books!  We see him peeking over people’s shoulders, picking up parts of their stories and returning to them over the years, just to find out how their stories end.  He cannot resist a good tale and gently leads us through the plot, holding our hand at the sad bits and delighting in the joy of human laughter.

This book is brimming with optimism and life, not bad for a book narrated by Death!  The unspeakable horrors of WWII are touched upon lightly, but in the main this book deals with life in a small German town, when times were hard and strange.   It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in years.  Indeed, Zusak has given me a treasure and as such I will place it at eye-level in my book case, so I can catch glimpses of it as I pass, hearing the soft sigh of an accordion and knowing that it is close at hand whenever I feel the need to visit to Liesel or Rudy, and part-take in a little book thievery.    

5 of 5 stars