Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: The Book Thief- Markus Zusak


I know I just said in my review of Prisoner B-3087, that I wanted to read more World War II and Holocaust nonfiction rather than fiction, but I only vaguely remembered that this one was from that time period.  The only other thing I knew going into this book, is that a student told me it was good, but it was odd and it didn't make a lot of sense until you learned about halfway through the book that the narrator was Death.  However, and this isn't just because I was forewarned about the narrator by the student, it was obvious that the narrator was Death from the Introduction or Chapter 1 (whatever the first part was).
Anyway, onto the book itself- it was amazing.  I could not stop listening to it and found excuses to do work and continue listening to it.  Unfortunately my summer vacation got in the way and I had to pause listening to it for a few days, but picked it back up as soon as I could and finished it off.
The story focuses on a girl, Liesel,  who is given away to a foster family by her mother during World War II near Munich, Germany.  Her family new family is fairly impoverished as well, but are able to care for her better than her mother.  Liesel steals her first book during the trip to the foster family and steals several more during the course of the novel, but the focus is not really no her book stealing, instead the Book Thief is the name that Death gives her.  Liesel's new papa teachers her how to read in secret at night and once she learns she begins to steal more books.  The family ends up taking in a Jew, Max, and hiding him for a while, and of course, there are extra tensions with that.  The Jew came to them with information he was given that was hidden inside a copy of Mein Kampf.  Liesel's papa is a painter and so Max reads the book and then disassembles it and paints over the pages and begins to rewrite his story as a novel for her.  Meanwhile she develops a relationship with the mayor's wife and ends up reading books at the mayors house and then stealing them from there later.  She also ends up reading to the neighbor lady, who had a poor relationship with her foster parents, after reading one night in the bomb shelter.  Books lead Liesel to develop many relationships as well as grow in her the critical faculties to examine the world around her.  They are not an escape for her, as much as they are a means to grapple with and evaluate reality.  Later in the book Max gives her the novel he wrote and the mayor's wife gives her a journal, which is what Death has been using to tell the narrative.
Death carried Liesel's diary around with him through the war and for years afterwards until the words began to fade and he felt compelled to tell her story.  He tells it in amazing detail, although early on it seems choppy.  Death also describes things from his point of view and has pieced back together his encounters with the Book Thief because he was around the characters of the book a lot during the war with all of the death happening.  Death is not evil or morbid, but instead describes the world with exquisite detail painting beautiful pictures with amazing similes and metaphors.  He doesn't know all the details of Liesel's story, but has pieced it together from their brush encounters and her journal.  I'm reminded very much of the Tale of the Three Brothers [Deathly Hallows] from the Harry Potter series, where the third brother at the end of his life took of his invisibility cloak, "And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life."  Death is an old friend in this book and not someone to be feared.  He tells a great tale.
Of course, I know Death's voice here came from the author and that brings me to to three minor criticisms.  First, I've already mentioned the amazing similes and metaphors, but sometimes they were so good they'd knock me out of the book and distract me for a moment while I pondered them.  This also led to another unintended consequence that when there was a metaphor that was not as good I found myself disappointed and even distracted by it again. Secondly, and I'm not a literary person so this is fully speculation and opinion, the author gave away the ending several times.  Early on in the book we are told that certain characters are going to die by the end or events you want to happen, like Liesel kissing her best friend Rudy, won't happen.  The sections of the book also start out by giving away what will be encountered in the section.  This is not very good foreshadowing  but it still had the same effect of drawing you into the book and making you want more or to know how it would happen and come about.  I mentioned to my wife as I read it that I wasn't sure if the author just stunk at foreshadowing, or if this was just to give Death a more unique voice.  The last criticism is that there is a spattering of German words used, usually defined when they are first mentioned, but they keep coming up over and over and there were enough that sometimes I wished it was just in English, the curses I'm fine with keeping in German, but some of the other words could have been just spoken.  Also, it would not have hurt to have had a map, although I read the audiobook, so maybe the book does and I just didn't know it [usually I look that kind of thing up first].
This novel was gripping from beginning to end and deserves more awards than it got.  I've already requested his other popular 2002 book I am the Messenger.  This book was written in 2005 and he's not published anything since, but is allegedly working on one and I eagerly await it.

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