Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Book Thief (a book review)

   This novel, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, is a title our club consumed a few months ago. I am just now reviewing it, honestly, because I am just now finishing it. I did not much groove this book, you guys. Not much at all. And this places me squarely in our club's minority. It has several redeeming qualities, for sure, and I am happy to share them with you and encourage you to try it for yourself; but overall I had to push and prod myself through page after page. Even with nice, beefy subject matter like friendship and survival, coming of age, and genocide, I like books to offer a little more momentum than that. Okay, now that that's out of the way... Have you heard of The Book Thief?

   It is a fancifully written but gritty, personal account of a young girl living in Nazi Germany. It is told more or less from the perspective of Death himself, which as far as I remember is why our club chose the book in the first place. Written by Marcus Zusak, this story is aimed at a Young Adults audience and in fact spent almost a year on the New York Times Children's Literature best seller's list. That's quite something! And it may sort of explain why I had a hard time connecting with it.

   The format is unique, in that Death sometimes narrates in a comfortably informal, conversational tone, and other times the story is told as distantly as any novel. I greatly preferred the odd narration and really liked how Zusak used sensual imagery to convey war and death. Especially luscious are the long series of different ways Death lifts a soul from its body, and often, interestingly, vivid accounts of the sky at the moment each soul is claimed.

"The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. 
In some places it was burned. 
There were black crumbs, and pepper, 
streaked across the redness."

   That was well done, as were many scattered elements of the story. I got lost in more than a few descriptive scenes like that. And he does express pain really well.

"Hans Hubermann sat with her. 
He placed his hand on hers, as she fell back to the hard ground.
He allowed her screams to fill the street."

   The characters are only marginally sympathetic for me, until the very tail end of the book, and by then I was rather exhausted. On the other hand, the characters were realistic and believably flawed, less heroic than we are used to seeing in novels. Perhaps that was his whole point, that the World Wars were fought by real people, that not all Germans were all evil or all good, and that not all Jews or Allies were either.

   Again, this is important historical material, and perhaps it is intended to fall on ears that have had little exposure to World War II realities. Zusak does a great job reducing the big events to the cellular level, relaying, for example, how a bombing raid would feel to a village, to a family, to a young girl. And through the main character's life story we are invited to see how the wars affected German bystanders who were not necessarily Hitler supporters. These are valuable perspectives, for sure. And I do not mean to discount them or any other part of the book with my overall negative impression of it. It was just a slightly laborious read.

   I find myself wishing Zusak would write something else, something more adult, employing more of the fringed imagery he has invented.

   Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts. And please do not forward this to the author.

A Friend to All is a Friend to None, 
Even in Book Reviews


  1. Haven't read it and now I don't think I want to.....too morbid a subject to while away the evenings with. I'm reading Fall of Giants right now - Ken Follett - 20th century drama about WW1 - very interesting.

    Don't feel bad about writing a less than stellar reveiw - we're all entitled to our opinions.

    1. Heather, I hear ya on keeping free time light a bit light, or at least positive! How do you like Fall of Giants so far? Adding it to my too long list. ;)

  2. You already know I loved this book. I can see your points about why you didn't like it, and of course we can still be friends.

    You must have withheld your strongest reasons for not liking it, because your review, M, reads pretty positively. Of course, that's just who you are - loving, even when you don't agree. If you enjoyed his style, I suggest you check out I Am the Messenger. I enjoyed Book Thief so much that I read Messenger a few days later and enjoyed it for different reasons.


    1. LOL M you are too sweet. Yep, we'll always be friends, and we'll never agree on everything. LOL!! I am adding that 2nd book to my goodreads list...

      As for my strongest reasons for disliking this title, I cannot bring myself to openly and viciously criticize someone else's written word, knowing how much can go into it. Especially knowing how young the writer is and how important the subject matter is, ya know? I will just say it wasn't my cup of coffee.

      Now. Let's say we find out this guys Zusack is a total jerk or something. LOL Or maybe he wrote The Book Thief effortlessly in three days, sloppily even, and had other people edit and shape the final product. Then it is on like Donkey Kong.


  3. mmmm... I find myself a little unwilling to read anything for "young adults". I am really no longer equipped to read books purposefully written for this age group. You grow, you age, you get wiser and eventually those shoes just don't fit anymore. It is still on my too read list, for the subject's sake as well as the Death as narrator sake (it does sound terribly interesting). BUT, I have more pressing books to get to, like the ones I already have but have not gotten round to read yet. One is Little K, which I have now ordered and which will be arriving soonest. And then there is On The Road, arriving in the same package. We'll see how it goes. If I ever happen to stumble on the Book Thief, maybe I will give it a go. But it is not in the pile at the moment.

    I have just started Rich Girl Poor Girl, which I got for a buck from a girl letting the load of her bookcase. At first I thought it was just another light, soppy, girly book; Turns out the writing is actually quite good and the plot looks promising. I am only on the first few pages though, so I will let you know if my expectations are unfounded.

    Happy reading.

    1. Oh please let me know what you think of Little K!!
      And I kind of agree with you about the YA genre (in fact was getting kind of frustrated by so much pop lit being YA) but because I respect my fellow book clubbers a lot, I am TRYING to remain open now and then.
      Adding Rich Girl Poor Girl now! Thanks Nadya!! : ) I love how you insist on good reading in your life. xoxo


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