Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Travel the World: Australia: The Book Thief

Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief.

The Book Thief may just be the hardest book I've ever tried to review. It is beautiful. Though it can be ugly. It is intense. It is powerful. It is memorable. The first thing you should know about The Book Thief? It is narrated by Death. This is fitting in many ways since the setting is Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Death is the narrator, and he never lets you forget it. But there are many players--many characters--in the story that Death is relating to his audience all these years later. One of them is a girl, Liesel, and is known by Death as 'the book thief.' These thefts provide some structure to the text. (The structure is one of the odd things about the Book Thief. It isn't chronological. Death doesn't tell a story traditionally. He has his own way of jazzing it up, arranging it so it suits his needs and purposes.) The language, the style, is unique. I think it is written in such a way that you either really love it or you really don't. (It's written in such a way that you could almost open it to any page, and find a sentence or two or a whole paragraph that you want to just lift out and let resonate with you for a time.)

This is how it begins:

First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. Here is a small fact: you are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. (3)

It continues:

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me, it's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. As I've been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision--to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors. Still it's possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need a distraction from? Which brings me to my next point. It's the leftover humans. The survivors. They're the ones I can't stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors--an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fish fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. (4-5)

Before the story gets underway, he invites the reader along for the journey:

Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt, an immense leap of an attempt--to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I'll show you something. (14-15)

There is depth, substance, to these words, to this story. The descriptions. The details. The powerful sway of the words whether they're describing the beauty of love and family and friendship or capturing the ugly heaviness of hate, anger, and death. It's not an easy story to read. It's full of emotions. It's full of words. It's a book that at it's very heart and soul captures humanity in all its depths--the good, the bad, the ugly. Here is a book that captures what it means to be human.
One of the most memorable passages for me (224-236), and I hope this isn't much of a spoiler--is the hand drawn--hand written--portion written by "Max" for Liesel. I find it so powerful in its simplicity. So hauntingly beautiful. There is a second story specially written for Liesel by Max, this second one is found on pps 445-450. This is how that one begins, "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." (445)


Carl V. Anderson said...

This is a book my wife adored and she is desperately wanting me to read this so we can discuss it. No doubt I will get around to it sometime in the near future. Love all the different book covers for it.

Anonymous said...

I was tempted to read it a while back, but I passed. Perhaps I'll go read it, though... -think-

Suey said...

Wow! Great review. I talked about it on my post today, but I didn't even come close to doing it justice. You've done a much, much better job!

Les said...

This was my #1 favorite book in 2006. It's probably my #1 favorite book of all time. I love all the passages you quoted. I need to read the book again.

Go here for my review, if interested.

Laura said...

I loved this book. It was such a winner for me, that I bought three copies to give to friends and relatives to read, and the audiobook for my husband to listen to when he travels. Definitely a keeper and one to recommend to other readers.

Anonymous said...

I'm about half way through it right now. I'm amazed how quickly I'm reading it. The style is interesting but I love how he writes.

Framed said...

This was definitely my favorite book last year. I think the choice of the narrator was sheer genius. It would be interesting to listen to this on audio. Great review.

Anonymous said...

This was an amazing review. Thanks! This was one of the best books that I've read in a long time. Worth the read.

Sondra Santos LaBrie said...

FYI - Trudy White's (the illustrator of The Book Thief) Could You? Would You? will be featured on The Martha Stewart Show February 27th.

Sponge for Knowledge said...

Your book review for this was so perfect-- and I definitely understand the difficulties that come with reviewing it! But you definitely did it justice.

I loved this book too-- and I have to mention that listening to it as an audiobook was also very powerful. The narrator was incredible-- his voice rich and deep. I could imagine a Grim Reaper image reading the book to me. Too, though, he helped me with the German pronunciations that I may have tripped on a bit.

Great review!

Anonymous said...

I loved your review of The Book Thief. I recently read the book and was so "taken" with it that I kept telling my husband snatches of the story. He became so interested that he read it and loved it just as much as I did. It has become one of my favorite books along with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer--another great story of the WWII era.


Jaquetta M. said...

I love this book and your review as well! I think the book being narrated by death was a great touch on the Author's part. As a young adult, I find the storyline a bit conflicting but also interesting. Every character is perfectly molded and fit into the book to correspond directly with their words, and actions. I actually cried watching the movie. Great Review ♥