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The Book Thief stole my heart

Everyone knows the story: the concentration camps, the air raids, the casualties. Everyone knows the story of how one man set off with the intention of ruling Europe and creating a master race. Everyone knows the story of the bodies he left behind him. However, no one knows the story of Death.

The only certainty in Death’s existence is that everyone else dies. He has witnessed every period of history and the worst of human existence. Always present in the most horrific times of man and some of the most touching. Death is there to take the souls and rarely sees the life but with one girl he gets to see her story.

The exact number of souls that death carried during World War Two isn’t known but around 60million people came to know his arms as he cradled them.

Markus Zusak grew up listening to stories of Nazi Germany and knew there was a tale to be told. His mother had lived in a small town that witnessed bombings and parades of captured Jews marched through it. The personal story that Zusak has known since childhood helps to make The Book Thief one of those rare books that will captivate you and change the way you look at books and the power of words.

Narrated by Death, the book is both heart warming and heart breaking. It shows the true power of words. The power they have to transform; to take countries from peace to war; the power they have to save lives or take lives; and the power they have to change the lives of a book thief, an accordionist and a jewish fist fighter.

Starting with the death of a young boy on a train to Munich as he and his sister make the journey to live with foster parents, Death notices young Liesel Meminger and stays to watch her. Two days later she buries her brother and commits her first act of book thievery. The Gravedigger’s Handbook is dropped by an apprentice at the cemetery where her brother comes to rest and unleashes an appetite for words that will follow Liesel for her whole life.

Surprised to open their door to just one child, Hans and Rosa Hubermann take in the book thief and more than they ever expected. Liesel is a difficult child, losing her brother and being forced away from home leaves her with nightmares and it is only the close bond she forms with her new Papa that makes her behave.

As she begins to settle in to her new home Liesel sees a quiet, caring man that always smells of tobacco and paint and a loud woman constantly surrounded by other people’s laundry. As her new Mama throws insults around the room she starts to feel safe and at home.

The strange lemon haired boy next door sprints his way into Liesel’s life. They form a lasting friendship built on first love, bicycle rides and mischief. Rudy provides a large portion of the heart that makes this book leave such a lasting impression. An impression only matched by a Jewish fist fighter.

During the First World War a young Jew saved Hans from death and causing his own, prompting Hans to promise the Jew’s wife that he would owe her a debt of gratitude for life. Years later a Jewish fist fighter turns up on his doorstep asking for refuge and clutching the Hubermann’s address like a lifeline and praying Hans would remember his mother and father.

Death follows these characters as they spend every day with only a thin veil between themselves and his arms. He watches them as they come across moral dilemmas they put themselves and those they love in danger. He watches them as words come to define their lives and books help them to live while carrying the danger that they could die.

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

I am a sucker for romance. On Monday night I watched three ‘romantic comedies’ in a row. I love when the girl gets the guy and everyone lives happily ever after. I love the swell in the music, the look of realisation, the declaration. Ok so I am a sucker for bad movie romance as well as everyday romance.

I, like most people, have had my ups and downs when it comes to romance. I’ve had regrets and I’ve done stupid things but I have also learnt from them. I have learnt that you can’t go around breaking people’s hearts because someone nicer comes along but I have also learnt that it isn’t healthy to stay in a relationship just because the other person loves you when you don’t feel the same.

I can hear you all groaning already; ‘Oh here she’s goes, spouting about how she’s grown as a person or lecturing us on love.’ I promise you I’m not doing that. This is me in a state of shock. Today marks one year since I met my girlfriend, Rhianna and the past year has been wonderful.

I have also realised something over the past year. One day, I want to be the girl in the movies. The girl who has her perfect day. A day with a cake and a white dress, well two white dresses. A day with laughter and music and love. Ewww I think I might throw up myself, bet I beat you all to the bathroom!

Ahh now that the being sick is over I might get a little preachy. Under current legislation I’m not allowed that perfect day. So if you are living in Scotland I want you all to do something wonderful for me. Got to the Scottish government’s website and fill in their consultation on same-sex marriage. It isn’t fair that I’m not allowed to get married to the person I love because they happen to have boobs! If you aren’t living in Scotland and you happen across this blog then I urge you, forward to people in Scotland. Or if you are in the rest of the UK then soon they will be launching a consultation, respond to that when it comes out.

The provost for St. Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow said in an interview (to little journoface me): “I want gay members of my congregation to be able to walk safely down the street hand in hand and safely up the aisle hand in hand.” This is an incredibly beautiful thing that more and more religious figures are feeling and one I hope will spread to those who don’t.

Preachy part over, now back to the disgusting fuziness. A year ago today my life was changed, although officially this didn’t happen until about a week and a half later because I got drunk and made out with some random in the Cathouse (eww), and I just wanted to say; Happy Meetiversary Rhianna. Don’t get scared off by the marriage part. I won’t make you put on the white dress until the government change this law…

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The time has finally come for me to admit out loud. I might have to check myself into a loony bin when I’m finished writing this because I never thought in a million years I would ever, ever admit this to anyone. I like Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the Twilight series. I don’t like any of the others and if I did I would admit it only once, here. But yes Breaking Dawn, it is the one book I like out all of the sparkling vampire rubbish.

I can’t justify why I like the book, I hate, hate, HATE the vampire legend that Stephanie Meyer uses. I am a very big believer that vampires are supposed to be evil, disgusting creatures that see humans as a source of food and this sparkly rubbish that she spins infuriates me but there is something about the last book of the series that made me read it in one night. I borrowed it off someone from work and didn’t sleep until I had given it back the next morning in a happy state.

I think there is one main part of the book that turned it around for me and made me fall in love with the book. The scene where Bella gives birth/transforms. It is well written and gruesome, really gruesome. It could make the final film watchable if it is done right, which I doubt because they wouldn’t want to up the rating and alienate the tweenage audience. This scene made me sick yet was by far the best bit in the book. And the rest isn’t half bad either.

Ok so I have admitted it. I am handing myself in to the loony bin tomorrow and fully expect the complete mocking that I deserve. Go on, mock me.

Although I warn you, if you do mock me I will set a real vampire on you…

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The shortest book I’ve read

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The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy is the shortest book I have read. It is a collection of short stories and poems. Written an illustrated by Tim Burton, the book is darkly funny and contains a kid that is also an oyster and a woman with a pin cushion for a heart.

The book is easy to get through in minutes yet is also a book that will be picked up time and time again. As is anything else that comes from the genius mind of Tim Burton, the Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy is just simply amazing. See Nightmare Before Christmas for proof.

The longest book I’ve read

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The longest book I have ever read is the Lord of the Rings, while technically three books I did read the copy with all three books in one so I shall allow myself this cheat. And many other cheats.

The first film had just come out when I was 11 years old, and while I was much more amused by the first Harry Potter film which had come out at the same time I was fascinated by the world that Tolkien had spun.

I picked the book up at 11 and I am fairly certain that I didn’t finish for years. Other books came and went but this one was always there to be read between them.

I enjoyed going on the journey along with Frodo, Sam and the rest. As I was reading it was one of the most enjoyable books I have read but since finishing it a few years ago I honestly can’t tell you what happened outside of what I remember outside of what I saw in the films.

I think I have probably read books that are longer but the Lord of the Rings is the one that took me the longest and definitely felt like the biggest in my small 11 year old hands.

The book character most like me

The greatest of all the books have a main character that you emphasise with and feel for and want to go on that journey with them. I have had this experience with so many books that I don’t feel like I should compare myself to a main character. I think it is a much nicer compliment when someone else picks up a book and sees you when they read a certain character.

My mum and first step-dad used to call me Hermione Granger. I like to think that it was because I have always been smart and brave but in reality it must be because I have always been a little bit of a goody two shoes and dork. I almost never got in trouble during the first few years of boarding school because I was terrified of being told off.

Then as I got older and cared a little less about being well behaved and more about spending time with my friends and defeating the lord of all evil so did she!

The book most like my life

A group of kids go away to a magical boarding school where there are four houses, housemasters and mistresses and they play Quidditch. The book that is most like my life is Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone because there is no doubt about it… that was my life.

OK so there was no Quidditch but for 10 years the easiest comparison to make to get people to understand the type of school I went to was always Harry Potter because everyone knew the books (or films) and that was the easiest way to describe it.

Until someone writes a book about a 21 year old journalism student with a boring job and a geeky girlfriend it is the closest book I can get to real life.

Imagine packing the contents of your desk into a cardboard box. In goes the picture of you and your wife on holiday followed by the jokey old coffee mug your colleagues gave you and lastly some battered chewed up old pens. Imagine going home and telling your wife you were fired. You weren’t stealing office supplies; you weren’t slacking on the job. No you were fired for loving her. Absurd? Not so absurd for the United States Forces who fired 13,389 of its soldiers, sailors and air crew based on who they fell in love with.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was introduced in the United States on the 21st of December 1993. This legislation banned military recruiters from asking the sexuality of applicants and anyone in the Armed Forces from trying to find out. It also stated that any member of the Armed Forces would be discharged if they revealed they were homosexual or made any statement indicating a tendency towards homosexuality. President Bill Clinton considered this to be a suitable compromise after the previous legislation which denied anyone identifying as homosexual the ability to serve in the Armed Forces. When DADT was first introduced the government stated that it would promote unit cohesion and military readiness.

Officer Rice is an officer in the US Army, studying medicine while in the forces, she is 24 years old and has been serving for three years. She has noted that there is pressure to act heterosexual to keep her job safe: ‘When I first joined the military I was hardly out to anyone so there were more than a few times when people would ask me about boyfriends and things like that and I’d make something up. It’s always in the back of my mind, just going in one day and finding out that I’m going to be kicked out.” Officer Rice then added that there is a high level of suspicion in regards to senior unmarried female officers. ‘On the enlisted side there are more suspicions and you don’t tell the senior people there.’

DADT has received much criticism over the 17 years since its inception. However it was upheld in four of the federal courts of appeal and also in a Supreme Court case. In 2004 a federal lawsuit was filed by the Log Cabin Republicans – America’s largest gay Republican organization. It was bought to trial in 2010 when the judge ruled that DADT was unconstitutional as it violated both the First and Fifth Amendments.

President Barack Obama had repeatedly expressed his intent to repeal DADT, both in his presidential campaign and since his election. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that he set a timeline to discuss the repeal with Congress and the military.

The repeal was making good progress in America under an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act which stated the DADT would be repealed 60 days after a study by the US Department of Defence was completed and the US Defence Secretary, the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff and the US President had all certified that the repeal would not negatively impact on military readiness. However, this amendment came to a grinding halt when Senator John McCain led a successful filibuster against it. This sudden blow left supporters of the repeal devastated, “I’ve followed DADT for the past several years, and I’ve gotten my hopes up SO many times only to have them crushed (usually by John McCain).”

In December, a stand-alone bill rather than an amendment to an existing Act was bought forward to repeal DADT. On December the 15th the bill passed through the House of Representatives with 250 members voting for and 175 voting against. On December the 18th the bill passed through Senate with 65 senators voting for and 31 voting against. The repeal was signed into law by President Barack Obama
on the 22nd of December who said:

“This law I’m about to sign will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend. No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who were forced to leave the military – regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance – because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniforms be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country they love.”

However, DADT has not been immediately repealed. First the President, Secretary of Defence and Chairman of the Joints of Staff must certify that the repeal “is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces”. Once this has been done there will be a 60 day period until the repeal is official. Rice said: “Since it isn’t certified and completely repealed yet there hasn’t been much of a difference. I’ve heard one or two comments, in the sense of people making gay jokes and saying, “Well Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, so you can come out now”.

DADT was not only discriminatory legislation that cost thousands of people the jobs that they loved but it also cost America millions of dollars to implement. The Williams Institute if the University of California carried on from research done by the University of California Blue Ribbon Commission in 2006 which had found that since its inception until 2003, DADT had cost $363.8 million to implement. The Williams Institute updated the research and found that from 1993 until 2008, DADT had cost $555.2 million. These costs are made up from various different factors; the cost of travel home for discharged service members, recruiting new service members to replace those lost and training the enlistees. It has been reported that at least 800 of the discharged service men and women had vitally important jobs such as pilots, combat engineers and linguists. The Armed Forces has discharged 59 fluent Arabic speakers, this is a skill that is in short supply and vital to current military operations. It can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $45,000 to replace a single discharged person of the Armed Forces, depending on the job they had and they skill set they possessed.

A study by a historian, Anne Loveland, shows that those who created DADT knew that they could not use their own personal morals as a reason to form law so used the unit cohesion argument instead. She also found that chaplains and evangelical groups wanted to present a case in support of DADT on the basis that gays and lesbians are an abomination but polls of public opinion showed that people did not share this view and they would have more chance if they had a military related argument. Rice said: “ It probably took so long because the military tended to be more conservative on the whole, and it took 10 years of older guys retiring and newer 20-somethings joining in who didn’t care. Kind of like the attitude which is reflected for gay marriage here; the younger generations don’t care as much and it’ll continue to be that way until in about 30 or so years when the most anti-gay folks have died off.”

DADT has ruined people’s lives for 17 years, denying them the jobs they wanted and serving the country they loved. Its repeal was long overdue but finally the estimated 65,000 homosexual people currently serving in the US Armed Forces can live their lives without the daily fear of their sexuality being revealed and used against them. Unfortunately it has come 13,389 people too late.

UPDATE: On July 22 2011 President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen signed and submitted a one-page written certification that the military is ready to repeal DADT fully. On September 20th DADT will end and people will finally be able to serve openly in the US military, a move that is long overdue. However, due to the Defence of the Marriage Act they will unable to get any federal benefits for their partners.

8. 30 am. The alarm pierces the foggy hangover. Turning over the student grunts; lecture at 9am, essay deadline at 5pm, bus to London to change the world at 11pm. This isn’t necessarily the image that will spring to mind when most people think of a stereotypical student, this is a new species that has evolved from their 1970s predecessors: the student activist.

The DEMOLITION demonstration in London last November, organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU), has thrown student activism into the media and not in a particularly favourable light. 50,000 students took to the streets to protest against the proposed changes that would see the cap on university tuition fees in England and Wales climbing to £9,000 and a 40% cut to education funding. It showed us that a student campaign can have the capability to influence governmental resignations, mass mobilisation, occupations and unprecedented violence in the world of politics. With so many students taking part can this campaign be called a success or does the vandalism and violence condemned by David Cameron as ‘unacceptable’ make it a failure?

Liam Burns, the President of NUS Scotland and President-elect of NUS UK, has been at the front of many student campaigns for a few years and understands where this campaign both succeeded and failed: “This campaign meant that the rise in the cap on tuition fees dominated the political agenda for three months but it also hindered the campaign. It lost public sympathy.” It is not however just the campaign itself that failed, “We should have had the foresight to see that when the coalition government was formed we had lost already. May the 6th should have been the day for a national demo to make sure that the tuition fees were a part of the coalition agreement.”

There are student activists that condone the violence seen at Millbank tower; Vicki Baars is one of the officers for the NUS LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) campaign. She was also one of the members of NUS that signed a statement in support of the direct action used at Millbank. “The November 10th Demonstration “Demolition” saw 50,000 students turn out on the streets of London instead of an expected 15,000. A break-off happened and around 5,000 students and allies occupied the courtyard of Millbank with 100 or so people making their way up to the roof. The press took to this event like vultures to a carcass,” Vicki explains.

“There were a number of acts of vandalism such as the breaking of windows, graffiti inside and out of the building and the infamous throwing of a fire extinguisher. Whether or not you agree that this was a good tactic to use captured the attention of the press for weeks. Most newspapers used images from Millbank on their front page the next day. This event undeniably drew attention to the cause. Millbank changed the atmosphere of the campaign, breaking a seal, letting the lid of anger of thousands come loose.” She said.

Stevie Wise, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs at Edinburgh University was one of the EUSA sabbatical officers who were at the very front of the successful Write to Mike campaign. The day the Browne review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance came out Liz Rawlings, EUSA President, phoned all the local MPs to ask how they would vote. Liberal Democrat Mike Crockart said he would abstain or vote with the government. This then sparked the idea for the Write to Mike campaign.

“We put pictures of him making the pledge against a rise in tuition fees on the EUSA website and template letters for students to use to write to him urging him to vote against.” Stevie said. “We went out on campus with letters to get students to sign, we managed to get 1000 letters signed in two days and took them to his office the following Monday.”

Crockart told EUSA that he would come out publicly about voting against the rise in fees at the beginning of the vote, on the Monday he was impersonated on a radio phone-in. “When we told him this would be a perfect time to come out publicly he refused. He kept refusing and eventually we used contacts we had at the Guardian to make his stance public.”

Stevie explains why she thinks this campaign was so successful: “Campaigns can be successful being reactive; they don’t all have to be proactive. We played it really well gaining his trust and not telling the press straight away. We learnt that you have to have a degree of trust when working with politicians.”

As well as successfully getting Crockart to vote against the rise in tuition fees the campaign also saw him step down from his role as parliamentary private secretary to Scottish Secretary Michael Moore.

The Budget for Bursaries campaign, an NUS Scotland coordinated campaign that was launched to lobby the government to save college bursaries, was created when the Draft Scottish Budget was released that cut the student support available in colleges by £1.7m. The campaign wanted to ensure that the Scottish government would commit to finding the £14m shortfall in funding needed to protect college students rather than cut the funding further. This success saw over 32,000 e-mails sent in just two and half weeks – and the Scottish Government agreed to put an extra £15 million towards college bursaries over the next two years, and an extra £8 million towards creating new college places.

An interview with the then education shadow secretary for the Labour party, Des McNulty and his Liberal Democrat equivalent Margaret Smith showed that campaigns such as Budget for Bursaries can impact MSPs.

Did the Budget for Bursaries campaign make a difference to MSPs and the way they voted?

MS: It definitely made a difference to us. The timing was right, it was achievable and there was a consensus that all parties would support it if we could find the money. This campaign built on successful NUS Scotland campaigns and past wins, for instance the Parent Trap that won more money for student parents.

DM: I think it did. What’s probably true is NUS over years has had successful lobbying on bursaries and has built up a system of principles and awareness of practicals which laid the foundation which it would not have been successful without.

Was the campaign handled well? Was it seen to be professional?

MS: On top of the fees campaign this made sense, this brought human beings in. Parents came in to highlight the anomalies of the bursary system. It was a very human way to ignore numbers and make it about individuals. We’ve had disagreements with NUS Scotland before but the way it argues its case and lobbies is professional.

DM: Yeah I think so. NUS Scotland has a good degree of experience in making its case.

We’ve seen lots of different student campaigns this year – most notably down south – was this campaign handled differently? If so did this mean it was received better on the political side?

MS: It was embraced due to the respect for NUS Scotland. They asked for the right thing at the right time. And nobody threw a fire extinguisher at anybody else.

DM: The campaign down south was based on rage and not controlled by NUS. In Scotland it has managed the campaign. Had specific asks and got track record on them. It got the outcome it wanted.

The Save EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) campaign was created when the Comprehensive Spending Review was released it said that EMA would be reformed. “Which we found out meant abolish.” Said Shane Chowen, the NUS Vice-President FE (Further Education).

EMA is a means-tested allowance of between £10 and £30 a week, paid to 16- to 19-year-olds who stay on in education, available to those who come from households where the net pay is below £30,000 pa.

The Save EMA campaign was set up in partnership with several trade unions. “We thought it was important to get the perspective of people who weren’t just students but also who could see the benefits of more students aged 16, 17 and 18 in education.” Said Shane.

A system called EMAiling was set up which allowed students to use template emails to use to send to their local MPs and the campaign gave out the email address of Michael Gove. “We decided it was really important to make it a political issue.”

A day of action was set up on the 13th of December using contacts created from EMAiling and previous NUS campaigns. “We managed to get the issue out to people from the halls of Westminster to local sixth forms and colleges.”

Despite all of the positivity throughout the campaign EMA was still abolished but Shane says this doesn’t make the campaign a failure. “We didn’t win the vote but we did the absolute best we could, they used out-dated statistics to abolish EMA. It was our campaign that convinced them to come up with a replacement when they didn’t previously have one. Our action managed to get the replacement budget from £75million to £180million and people that are already getting EMA will still get it. It is still an important issue to us and we are not willing to let it go.”

EMA has now been scrapped in England under the current government’s new budget however it has been saved in Scotland and Wales. “The EMA argument was easier for students in Scotland and Wales because their governments are more left-wing. At the time they were also both leading up to elections and because of this politicians were willing to make promises to win the election. The devolved nations must do everything they can to ensure that those who got into power keep their promises to students.” Said Shane.

Student activism has been splashed across the front pages frequently over the past few months and often in a very negative light. But that is because students are once again discovering their voices and discovering that sometimes, when they shout loud enough, someone might actually listen to them and hear the issues that affect them. It does not always matter that the campaign is necessarily a success or failure it matters that their voice is heard.

As a young girl who was beginning to discover the power of books The Famous Five were a godsend. Even if they were so outdated for my generation. Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy became my friends. I wanted to adventure alongside them, to discover gold on islands and outwit the bad guys. I wanted to travel back to innocent times when life was all about picnics and ginger beer.

The books changed my life, particularly Five on a Treasure Island because they made me think that if I went to boarding school this would be what my summer holidays would be, they made me want to devour books and most importantly… They introduced me to my first love, George.

As a young girl I wanted to be George, she was amazing, she would cut her hair and pretend to be a boy and take no prisoners. She was fun, bossy and always had her way. I wanted George to be my best friend, I wanted to be with her all the time, little did my tiny child heart know but I was falling in love for the very first time. A love that would change my life and I will carry with me forever (although if my girlfriend asks I am totally over it). The 1996 tv series also compelled my love even further and I have to admit, looking at the actress who played George now, Jemima Rooper, I had pretty damn good taste at such a young age. Rooper has aged REALLY well.

While the books are outdated and have not aged well they were the basis of my childhood and part of the reason why I still love to read now.