The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak, Trudy White Published 08 Sep 2007
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HERE IS A SMALL FACT:
YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.
SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:
THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.
It's a small story, about:
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.
ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW:
DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
"The Book Thief" Reviews
This is a book to treasure, a new classic. I absolutely loved it.
Set in Germany in the years 1939-1943, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, narrated by Death who has in his possession the book she wrote about these years. So, in a way, they are both book thieves. Liesel steals randomly at first, and later more methodically, but she's never greedy. Death pockets Liesel's notebook after she leaves it, forgotten in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her street, her home, and carries it with him.
Liesel is effectively an orphan. She never knew her father, her mother disappears after delivering her to her new foster parents, and her younger brother died on the train to Molching where the foster parents live. Death first encounters nine-year-old Liesel when her brother dies, and hangs around long enough to watch her steal her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, left lying in the snow by her brother's grave.
Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Herbermann, are poor Germans given a small allowance to take her in. Hans, a tall, quiet man with silver eyes, is a painter (of houses etc.) and plays the accordian. He teaches Liesel how to read and write. Rosa is gruff and swears a lot but has a big heart, and does laundry for rich people in the town. Liesel becomes best friends with her neighbour Rudy, a boy with "hair the colour of lemons" who idolises the black Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens.
One night a Jew turns up in their home. He's the son of a friend of Hans from the first world war, the man who taught him the accordian, whose widowed wife Hans promised to help if she ever needed it. Hans is a German who does not hate Jews, though he knows the risk he and his family are taking, letting Max live in the basement. Max and Liesel become close friends, and he writes an absolutely beautiful story for her, called The Standover Man, which damn near broke my heart. It's the story of Max, growing up and coming to Liesel's home, and it's painted over white-painted pages of Mein Kampf, which you can see through the paint.
Whenever I read a book, I cannot help but read it in two ways: the story itself, and how it's written. They're not quite inseparable, but they definitely support each other. With The Book Thief, Markus Zusak has shown he's a writer of genius, an artist of words, a poet, a literary marvel. His writing is lyrical, haunting, poetic, profound. Death is rendered vividly, a lonely, haunted being who is drawn to children, who has had a lot of time to contemplate human nature and wonder at it. Liesel is very real, a child living a child's life of soccer in the street, stolen pleasures, sudden passions and a full heart while around her bombs drop, maimed veterans hang themselves, bereaved parents move like ghosts, Gestapo take children away and the dirty skeletons of Jews are paraded through the town.
Many things save this book from being all-out depressing. It's never morbid, for a start. A lively humour dances through the pages, and the richness of the descriptions as well as the richness of the characters' hearts cannot fail to lift you up. Also, it's great to read such a balanced story, where ordinary Germans - even those who are blond and blue-eyed - are as much at risk of losing their lives, of being persecuted, as the Jews themselves.
I can't go any further without talking about the writing itself. From the very first title page, you know you're in for something very special indeed. The only way to really show you what I mean is to select a few quotes (and I wish I was better at keeping track of lines I love).
"As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man's voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him." (p187)
"Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew." (p.239)
"The book was released gloriously from his hand. It opened and flapped, the pages rattling as it covered ground in the air. More abruptly than expected, it stopped and appeared to be sucked towards the water. It clapped when it hit the surface and began to float downstream." (p.325)
"So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone." (p.331)
"After ten minutes or so, what was most prominent in the cellar was a kind of non-movement. Their bodies were welded together and only their feet changed position or pressure. Stillness was shackled to their faces. They watched each other and waited." (p.402)
"People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched. As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams - planks of sun - falling randomly, wonderfully, onto the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. "It's such a beautiful day," he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this." (pp.543-4)
Writing like this is not something just anyone can do: it's true art. Only a writer of Zusak's talent could make this story work, and coud get away with such a proliferation of adjectives and adverbs, to write in such a way as to revitalise the language and use words to paint emotion and a vivid visual landscape in a way you'd never before encountered. This is a book about the power of words and language, and it is fitting that it is written in just such this way.
The way this book was written also makes me think of a musical, or an elaborate, flamboyant stage-play. It's in the title pages for each part, in Death's asides and manner of emphasing little details or even speech, in the way Death narrates, giving us the ending at the beginning, giving little melodrammatic pronouncements that make you shiver. It's probably the first book I've read that makes me feel how I feel watching The Phantom of the Opera, if that helps explain it.
And it made me cry.
UPDATE: AUG 26, 2016: This review has been here 8 years, has 18 pages of 854 comments and 764 likes. There's no outrage for you to add in the comments section that hasn't already been addressed.
If you want to talk about the book, or why you liked it, or anything else, feel free.
UPDATE: FEB 17, 2014: I wrote this review 4 years ago on a foreign keyboad, so I'm well aware that I spelled Chekhov's name wrong. I'm not going to fix it, so please don't drive my review further up in the rankings by commenting on the misspelling. You're very dear, but I know his name is Anton and not Antonin. On that same note, you don't need to add comments telling me that I didn't like the book because I "don't know how to read" and "don't understand metaphors." I actually have an M.A. in in English Lit, so I do know how to read -- much better than you do, in fact. Now quit bothering me before I go get my PhD and then really turn into a credential-touting ass.
UPDATE: JULY 10, 2013: To all jr. high students who find themselves grossly offended by my review: please remember that every time you leave a comment here, you push my review up even higher in the rankings. Please save us both time and energy by not commenting. Thnx.
This was the biggest piece of garbage I've ever read after The Kite Runner. Just as with The Kite Runner, I'm (somewhat) shocked that this book is a bestseller and has been given awards, chewed up and swallowed by the literary masses and regarded as greatness. Riiiight.
The whole thing can be summed up as the story of a girl who sometimes steals books coming of age during the Holocaust. Throw in the snarky narration by Death (nifty trick except that it doesn't work), a few half-assed drawings of birdies and swastikas, senseless and often laughable prose that sounds like it was pulled from the "poetry" journal of a self-important 15 year-old, and a cast of characters that throughout are like watching cardboard cutouts walking around VERY SLOWLY, and that's the novel.
Here are some humble observations.
First, chances are that you, Mr. Zusak, are not Antonin Chekhov. You are, therefore, incapable of properly describing the weather for use as a literary device, and you end up sounding like an asshole. Don't believe me?
"I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate." Really? Do you, now?
"The sky was dripping. Like a tap that a child has tried it’s hardest to turn off but hasn’t quite managed.” Really?? Wow. Next you'll tell me that the rain was like a shower. I'm moved.
"Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky. Great obese clouds." Yes. Stupid, obese clouds! They need an education and a healthy diet!
Next, chances are that you, Mr. Zusak, are not William Styron or any one of the other small handful of authors that can get away with Holocaust fiction. They've done their research, had some inkling of writing ability, and were able to tell fascinating stories. You invented a fake town in Germany (probably so you didn't have to do any research) and told a long-winded and poorly-written story, and in 500+ pages you couldn't even make it to 1945, so you sloppily dropped off and wrapped it up in 1943. What's the point of writing historical fiction if you can't even stay within the basic confines of that hisotrical event? For me, this does nothing more than trivialize the mass murder of over 6 million people. Maybe that's why a 30 year-old Australian shouldn't write about the Holocaust. But that's just me. Moving on.
But what really makes this book expensive toilet paper is the bad writing which is to be found not just in bizarre descriptions of the weather, but really on every page. Some personal favorites?
"The breakfast colored sun."
"Somewhere inside her were the souls of words."
"The oldened young man." WTF?!!?
"He crawled to a disfigured figure."
"Her words were motionless."
"It smelled like friendship." (Remind me to sniff my friends next time I see them.)
"A multitude of words and sentences were at her fingertips." (HUH?)
"Pinecones littered the ground like cookies."
All of this is quite funny coming from a book where the main character supposedly learns the importance of words. Further, I love that the protagonist comes to the conclusion that Hitler "would be nothing without words." Really? REALLY? Would Hitler be nothing without WORDS? What about self-loathing, misplaced blame and hatred, an ideology, xenophobia, charisma, an army, and a pride-injured nation willing to listen? Don't those count for something??
The shit-storm comes to an end when a bomb lands on our fictional town, wiping out everyone save for the sometimes book-thief main character. Of course. Because weak writers who don't know how to end their story just kill everyone off for a clean break and some nice emotional manipulation. Written for maximum tear-jerking effect, our main character spews out some great lines when she sees the death and destruction around her:
To her dead mother, "God damn it, you were so beautiful."
To her dead best friend as she shakes him, "Wake up! I love you! Wake up!" (Didn't I see the same thing in that movie My Girl?)
Then she profoundly notes that her dead father "...was a man with silver eyes, not dead ones."
And this kind of angsty adolescent prose just never ended! It went on and on to form the one long-ass, senseless, disjointed story.
But that's ok. Take it all the junk, give it a quirky narrator, an obscure and mysterious title, throw in a Jew on the run from Nazis who likes to draw silly pictures of birds and swastikas, and market it all as Holocaust lit. Ahh, the packaging of bullshit makes for such a sweet best seller.
Swallow it down, America. Put it on the shelf next to The Kite Runner. You love this. You live for this.
I put off reading this book for the library book club. Here are my three reasons for doing so:
1) It's a Young Adult Book. I am an Adult. It can't be that good if it's written for young people.
2) It's about the Holocaust, and I think we've all heard enough about that. The author will probably even focus on colors among the grays, as in "Schindler's List."
3) I have WAY too many other books to read.
After avoiding the book for as long as possible, I sat down, hoping to enjoy it enough to gain some clever comments for the book group.
Turns out, most of my concerns were right. But one other thing was also true: THIS BOOK ROCKS.
The first thing any review will say about this book is that it is narrated by death. So, I might as well get it out of the way. Death, the Hooded One, the Angel of the Night, narrates. He is very busy during the war years, as you might expect. Some people claim this is a mere gimmick, and that the story is strong enough as it is.
I agree that this is a strong story-- it moves like a sailboat on a brisk day-- but I think the choice to tell it through Death was a good one. Death foreshadows constantly, so we know a bit about which of the characters will die. Instead of ruining the shock value, this heightened my anticipation and dread. And isn't that how people feel during war? They know some of them are bound to die. They know they will lose loved ones. It's one long, hellish wait to see how it will turn out.
It's also an unusual take on the Holocaust because it focuses on Liesel, an orphaned German girl living in Hitler's birthplace. Liesel (The Book Thief) and the other characters in this book are rich, interesting, and wily. I say wily because at points in the book you hate them, but they change, and you grow to love them. For instance, Liesel's adopted mother is a foul-mouthed, abusive, sharp woman. (SPOILER--->) When Liesel's adopted father is shipped off to war, however, Liesel creeps through the house to see Rosa sleeping with her husband's accordian strapped around her waist. Rosa's changes prove one of the greatest reasons to read good literature-- to get insight into the type of people we don't usually give a second chance.
I give this 5 stars, BUT there is a disclaimer: If you want a fast read, this book is not for you. If you only like happy endings this book is not for you. If you don't like experimental fiction, this book is not for you.
If you love to read and if you love to care about the characters you read about and if you love to eat words like they're ice cream and if you love to have your heart broken and mended on the same page, this book is for you.
This story is narrated by Death during World War II, and it is the story of a young German girl who comes of age during one of the most horrific times in recent history. Death has a personality. If something bad is about to happen, Death warns you ahead of time. My favorite part is when "he" stomps on a framed picture of Hitler on his way to retrieve a thousand souls from a bomb raid. Death is trying to understand the human race as much as the humans are. When "his" job becomes unbearable, he watches the color of the sky as he gathers the souls and carries them away. The descriptions of the sky are like nothing I've ever read.
A few quotes: In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer - proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water. p.164
The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets and filled up the streets like a bath. p.247
He was more a black suit than a man. His face was a mustache. p.413
He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It's his only detriment. he steps on my heart. He makes me cry. p.531
There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
1. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.
2. He would make himself a small, strange mustache.
3. He would one day rule the world.
...Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. p.445
Video review can be found here: https://youtu.be/rzEHcw769xg
It's going to take awhile for this book to fully sink in, but overall this was a masterpiece.
I feel like I was just given a history lesson but in the most emotionally damaging way possible.