Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Book Thief

 The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is one of those books everyone just has to read.  A Printz Honor Book  and NY Times Bestseller it is one of those books that generates a lot of buzz and gets much rotation in book clubs.  Adults who normally turn up their noses at YA books will read it because it has been declared "important".  So why did it take me so long to read it?  Well, I'm a contrary girl.  I also have a great mistrust of the masses.  (This is why I didn't bother to read Harry Potter until after the sixth book was published.)  I have read it now though and can see why the book has received so many accolades and been declared important. 
Synopsis (From Goodreads):
It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can't resist- books. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever they are to be found.  With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

It took about 200 pages for me to fall into the rhythm of the story.  I have said this before but I don't like this type of narration.  The story is told by a first person narrator (Death) telling someone else's story.  On occasion he interrupts with observations and witty commentary.  I favor this book over any other I've read with this style narration, but as a reader this just doesn't work form me.

Once I fell into the rhythm of the story I enjoyed it.  As much as one can enjoy a story about death, narrated by Death, that takes place in Nazi Germany. 

Death is an interesting and witty narrator.  He jumps around the timeline of the story quite a bit, not so much foreshadowing as blatantly telling you what will happen, then he backtracks and explains how everyone got there.  It works in this story because it is not about how it ends but the journey to the end.  One thing that bothered me through the entire book was:  why Liesel Meminger?  Of all the humans Death could choose to tell the story of why did he choose this girl.  To me this story was about Hans, Max, Rudy, Rosa and Ilsa.  Liesel is the thread that binds their stories together, but on her own I didn't find her at all interesting.  Death did though, he made it very clear.  There is definitely a theme of connectivity of human lives in the book.  All these people formed and shaped who Liesel was.  And I'm assuming who she became although Death is rather vague on that point.  Liesel just seemed like a vehicle to tell the story rather than a fully realized character in her own right.

Overall the book has a very existential feel to it.  Death makes it clear that he takes people's souls but to what and where and for what purpose he never touches on.  In one of his introspective remembrances Death says:
"I blow warm air into my hands, to heat them up.  But it's hard to keep them warm when the souls still shiver.  God.  I always say that name when I think of it.  God.  Twice, I speak it.  I say His name in a futile attempt to understand.  'But it's not your job to understand.'  That's me who answers.  God never says anything.  You think you're the only one he never answers?" 
Death intimates at other times there are rules to his work.  Who made these rules?  Why does he have to follow them?  Clearly we are meant from that quote to dismiss any notions of the Judeo-Christian God and beliefs about Heaven and Hell.  Yet there is clearly an eternity at work in this story.  Death lives in it and carries souls off to it.  What then?  I really could never figure out quite what the author was trying to do with this, which was probably the point and why I say there is an existential feel to the book. 

I liked the story and the characters I was introduced to through it, but this is not a book that I would ever want to read again.

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