Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review Club: "The Book Thief"


After reading several books this past year that were set, in part, in Nazi Germany, I swore I wouldn't read another book about that time period and the Holocaust for a long, long, time.  Don't get me wrong--I think it is very important to remember what happened during that time so that we never, ever allow it to happen again.  But those events and the blind hatred of Hitler and his followers are just too depressing; I want to read books that provide some escape or lift my spirits.  And yet, what did I read over Christmas break but another book set entirely in Nazi Germany--The Book Thief by Markus Zusak!

The Book Thief is the story of young Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents near Munich.  After witnessing the death of her younger brother and being separated from her mother, Liesel is haunted by nightmares.  The kindness and patience of her foster father, Hans Hubermann, eventually helps her to adjust to her new home, and she settles into a somewhat normal--if there could be such a thing as "normal" in 1939 Germany--life of a 10-year-old, playing soccer with the neighbor kids and getting into mischief with her new best friend, the irrepressible Rudy.

Liesel is fiesty and intelligent, but she doesn't do well in school.  After her brother's hasty burial, Liesel picks up a book dropped by one of the gravediggers and keeps it as a secret treasure, her last tangible connection to her brother.  When Hans discovers it under her pillow during one of his nightly vigils by her bedside, he suggests they read it together to improve Liesel's reading skills.  And so Liesel's discovery of the power of words begins.

This theme of the power of words is reinforced by Zuzak's use of imagery and frequent use of poetic syntax.
"Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain."
Zusak has an unconventional style; one of the most unusual aspects is that the novel is narrated by Death, who is responsible for giving Liesel the nickname "the book thief."  That may sound morbid, but this is not your typical Grim Reaper.  This figure of Death does not especially enjoy his work and often looks at the color of the sky to avoid looking at the faces of his victims.  When the victims are children, he takes special care and carries their souls tenderly.
"The consequence of this is that I'm always finding humans at their best and worst.  I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both."
With its subject matter and setting, the book is definitely sad at times, but not as much as one might expect.  Much of this is due to the author's focus on Liesel and her reactions to her environment.  For example:
  • In a frenzied display of "patriotism," the citizens of Molching hold a book burning.  But Liesel uses this as an opportunity to steal another book.
  •  As the war progresses, people in Germany are starving.  But Liesel never complains about the disgusting pea soup her foster mother fixes every night.  And she and Rudy join a band of young boys stealing apples from farmers' orchards, more for the excitement than for the nourishment.
  •  When the neighborhood is forced into a cramped basement during air raids, Liesel reads to them from one of her stolen books, calming their fear.
  • Jews are being forced out of their homes and their shops destroyed.  But Liesel has a Jew hiding her basement; Max and Liesel become fast friends, and they even build a snowman in the basement one day.
A winter storm this weekend has kept me homebound for several days--the perfect time to curl up under a cozy blanket with a good book.

The Book Thief has been targeted at older teen readers, but it is certainly a book that adults can appreciate as well.  One of my favorite parts of the novel is the story that Max writes for Liesel, "The Word Shaker."  Its message is powerful and full of hope:  that one day the seeds sown by friendship will grow strong enough to overpower the seeds sown by hatred.



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@Barrie Summy

Disclaimer: No compensation of any kind was received for this review. As always, I review only books I enjoy and think others would enjoy reading too. After downloading a sample of The Book Thief on my Kindle, I was hooked and checked out the book from my local library.

21 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

My book group all loved this.

Balisha said...

I had heard so much about the movie that I ordered the book on cd. I love having someone read to me and I'm not disappointed in this choice. Allan Corduner is the reader. His voice and ways he uses it make the story come alive.I'm about half way through. Enjoying it so much.
Your review is outstanding.
Balisha

tina said...

It sounds like a good book. And oh yes, curling up with one in a nice warm house this time of the year is the best! Hope it clears up soon for you. No snow down here and I'm heading to the farm soon to do some TSI. No, the Adagio does not self seed. Its largest size is about 5'x5' which is a pretty good size for a miscanthus-not too big.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I grabbed a copy of the ebook when it was discounted last month, but hesitated to start it for the reasons you mentioned. I used to read a lot of books about this period, but as I've gotten older, I find it harder and harder to deal with the horrifying events. Your review made me feel better about reading The Book Thief, though I'm sure I will cry. Good review.

Stacy said...

I have been meaning to read this book for a long time now. It sounds like I should definitely go get a copy.

Thanks for the review.

Retired English Teacher said...

This sounds like a beautiful book that gives one hope in the midst of tragedy. I will look for it and read it. Thanks for the review.

The photo is beautiful and seems to fit right in with what you have written about the book.

Nadezda said...

I couldn't read such books about the last war, Rose. Recollections of all my family died during the blockade of the city, hunger, cold and death.
You're right it never ever allow it to happen again.

Nadezda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CommonWeeder said...

As a librarian I bought this book for my library, but in spite of all the wonderful reviews I didn't really understand the set up and couldn't bring myself to read it until a couple of years ago. It is not often that I weep as I did reading sections of this book. I don't know that I dare see the movie, only because I dread how it might miss the aspects that make it such a moving and positive book.

Sarah Laurence said...

Wonderful review! You capture much of what is so special about The Book Thief. My kids read it in middle school and loved it too. I'm ashamed to admit that I got halfway through and then got sidetracked. You are motivating me to finish it.

PlantPostings said...

I was wondering if that book and movie were good. The story certainly sounds compelling! My book club is currently reading a book about the Holocaust, too: "The Storyteller," by Jodi Picoult. I can't say it's uplifting. It's probably one of the toughest Holocaust books I've read. But it is very well-written and thought-provoking.

Barrie said...

Guess what? I already have this book, and it's slowly but surely making its way to the top of my TBR pile. :) I think, after your review, I'll bump it to first place. Also, I might follow Balisha's lead and listen to it on CD when driving with my 13 y.o. Thank you!!

Marguerite said...

Thought this sounded familiar, reading the other comments I know why - a movie was made. I haven't seen it but was curious. thanks for the review, glad to hear there were uplifting moments. As you say, it's important to remember what happened, but sometimes I find it hard to hear about such negative situations.

Maggie May said...

I read the book and it was both gripping and sad.
If we don't read these things and keep the awful suffering alive..... then the future generations won't know, will they and learn.......
Does anyone learn by others mistakes? Things like that are still happening today.
Maggie x

Nuts in May

Gail said...

Great review....I must add this to my ever growing list!

Jennifer said...

Another interesting sounding book Rose. I have seen that there is a movie out based on the book and wanted to see it, but now I am wondering if I might be better to read the book first.

Rose said...

Pattinase, This would be a great book to discuss in a book club.

Balisha, I've never tried audiobooks, but I can imagine that the reader could make a big difference in your impression of it.

Tina, Thanks for the info on the Adagio! I don't have many grasses, so I have much to learn about them.

Linda, There was much to enjoy and even smile about in this book, but I am like you--I find I really don't want to read depressing stories very often.

Stacy, Although this book was published several years ago, I had never heard much about it until the past year. I'm glad I found it.

Sally, Yes, there are uplifting parts of the book, thank goodness, and--spoiler alert--Liesel survives the war.

Rose said...

Nadezda, I can certainly understand your reluctance to read about this time period. So many people suffered during this time period, I can't imagine what it would be like to have a personal connection to some of them as well. One can only hope that we learn from the mistakes of the past.

Rose said...

Pat, I'm not sure I would have read this, except I kept seeing it on recommended lists and thought I should; despite its sadness, I'm glad I did.

Sarah, I wondered if the length of the book would put off many younger readers. I'm glad they are reading it, though; it is a story they need to know.

PlantPostings, Jodi Picoult's book sounds interesting, but I doubt I will read it any time soon. I'm reading "fluff" right now...in time I'll go back to more serious books.

Barrie, This would be a great book to read along with a teen--lots of great discussion points.

Marguerite, I think the book received more publicity because of the movie that came out recently. I don't think it played in our town, though, because I missed it.

Maggie, I'd like to think something like this would never happen again, but you're so right--we only have to look to certain parts of the world to see the inhumanity still occurring.

Gail, My list of to-read books is always growing, too!

Jennifer, I didn't get to see the movie, but I always prefer to read the book first. Of course, sometimes that means the movie disappoints me.



Liz Hinds said...

I read it a while ago and enjoyed it. A movie? I didn't know there was one.

Anna said...

I read this a year or so ago Rose and was so glad that I did. One of those books that had me gripped throughout and which pulled at the heartstrings. My husband who only got into serious reading at the age of 60 read it too and was most moved.