The Book Thief

Two disclaimers – First – I just got punched in the face and brain by a cold so if this isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, blame the germs.

Second – I am WAY behind the times. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak came out in 2006 and I just now read it. Because I am lame.

If you, like me, haven’t read this book yet – now would be the moment because the movie exists in the world now and… I have to say – I don’t think it is possible to turn this wonderful, amazing, gut wrenching book into any kind of decent movie. I fear that if you see the movie it will ruin this book forever and for all time. (I haven’t seen the movie, or even a trailer for the movie, so I could be wrong. But… Honestly other people who have read it – how… How can you translate even half of the power and magic of this book into anything meaningful on a movie screen?)

Okay, lamentations aside, because ultimately I am glad it’s a movie if only so that the author Markus Zusak gets more money for his work, let’s dive in.

I finished this book late at night a couple of nights ago. I didn’t review it right away because I just wanted to wallow in the feelings and thoughts that it left lingering on my brain.

This is one of those books that looks like it got humped by a rainbow paper porcupine now that I’m finished with it. In case you’re new here, I read with a stack of sticky tabs so I can mark things that stand out and go back to them again. Some books get more stickied than others. This one, I really had to restrain myself on so that it wouldn’t be completely swallowed in sticky tabs.

Book Thief Sticky Tabs

Well Read

You’ll figure this out pretty quickly as you begin to read, so I suppose it isn’t a spoiler to tell you who the narrator is, though it was one of the most delightful surprises for me. Oddly, in all the people who had talked it up, none of them had mentioned this aspect and for me it was one of the things that made the book so amazing, as well as being one of the reasons I’m not sure a movie version is really workable.

This whole book, this whole story is narrated by Death. Big D. Death. In the “flesh” so to speak.

The book is set during the Nazi years in Germany and carries on through World War II. The story follows a young girl through those hard times, through the death of her brother, the loss of her mother, the acquisition of a new family… Through awakenings and learnings and struggles and small enlightenments.

“Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.” This line should have been the hook for the whole story. It’s such an exquisite misery though. So tender and loving as it tears your heart out.

If you follow me on twitter, you know that as I read this book, I cried. A lot. Often in public. But, I also laughed a lot. And gasped. And cheered. And then cried again.

The main character, Liesel, is known to Death as “the Book Thief”. And she endears herself to him in ways that are remarkable and touching and make you step back and look at all of humanity from a much broader perspective.

Death holds a deep and enduring respect for Liesel. “An eleven-year-old girl is many things, but she is not stupid.” This basic idea, this basic premise, that whatever else Liesel may be, stupid is not one of them, helps Death show her in ways that allow the reader to see her as a fully realized, highly nuanced person. Full of flaws and doubts and skills and passions and struggling – just as we all struggle – to make the best choices with the information we have at the time, to be the best people we can in the world we are thrown into.

The writing – oh my goodness – the writing is… gorgeous. Fluid. Flawless. And… tricksy. It has a way of making you SEE things in ways you never even thought to look.

Markus Zusak is a man I would very much like to have over for dinner.

On page 4, Death introduces himself. Though, as he says, we will all come to know him soon enough. “At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body.”

Caked in your own body… That was the first sticky tab I put in the book. I remember very clearly setting the book down on my pillow and just… feeling that. Feeling myself, caked in my own body. And for a moment, a brief, fleeting moment… I got it. Our bodies are just… masks. They’re temporary homes. And, on one hand, they are caking us – dulling our senses, keeping us separate from each other, from the greater universe… But, on the other hand they are also holding us, teaching us, showing us new ways of seeing, being, interacting. After all, without bodies, how could we really touch, hug, caress…?

Other lines stood out – things said in a twisty way that somehow made them all the more obvious and plain. “Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness.” This line with its uncommon juxtaposition of brute strength and gentleness… It began the painting of another kind of manhood, another kind of masculinity. One that we see a little more rarely than I’d like. He is describing Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster-father. A man who despite all that is wrong in his world, remains steadfast and true to what he knows to be right, regardless of the hardship it brings him.

Another line, further in reminded me of one of my deepest held values. “If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.”

This idea, of dying alive… I get that. I feel it. It’s something I deeply understand and strive to achieve. And this book toys with it – having Death as your narrator allows you to explore so many different facets of the final act, so many ways of going. Death talks about the ones who would beg, plead with him to take them. But alas, he didn’t have time for them just then, didn’t they know there was a war on and he was busy. They would have to wait. They would have to suffer a little longer.

And then he talked about the ones, like Hans, who didn’t actively avoid him, nor did they taunt him or beckon him – instead they were just very good at being… overlooked in all the fray.

And then this:

*** A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE ***
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.
They are not.
They’re running at me.

Oh, oh yes! It hits you. Hard.

Or, as Death says, “It kills me sometimes, how people die.”

The Book Thief is not told in a linear fashion. It’s stories within stories within stories and side tracks that lead back to The Story, which is tucked inside yet another story.

Death delivers his own spoilers along the way, but as he reminds us, we know how this story ends, it ends the way they all do, with Death himself coming to take everyone away. We’re not reading to discover how it ends, we’re reading to discover the journey.

This is also a great book for writers to read, because it touches on so many of our personal demons, and offers exquisite and gentle encouragements.

“She was the book thief without the words.
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 the rain.”

Oh – I know that feeling. That slow stormy build up of words that swells into a flurry of inked precipitation splattered across the unsuspecting page…

I know the year has only just begun – and I’ve already read a string of great books. Heck, I’m already re-reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, this time out loud to my family, but for my money, I’ll bet early that The Book Thief is the best book I’ll read all year. I’m almost loath to pick up another book because… How can it compare?

Last – for those of you who care about politics and social justice and equality and basic human compassion… (You know, everyone following this blog, or why are you here?) This book delivers. If this post wasn’t already over long, I’d go into more of it, but I think for now I will just leave you with those tastes on your mental tongue. There’s a passage in this book that has inspired some deep swirling thoughts on these issues of humanity and power and language and justice and… I’ll come back to all of that with a fresh post.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already read The Book Thief – Now really is the moment. And I would urge you to read it before you see the movie. Let the beautiful language of Markus Zusak carry you through this story – these stories – the first time. Let Death wrap you in his gentle arms and show you the world as He finds it. Heartbreaking and inspiring and brutal and gentle and touching and bruising and haunting all at once.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Things that work

10 responses to “The Book Thief

  1. The Book Thief is one of my top five favorite books and I’m old and read a lot. I agree that it’s best nearly always to read it before viewing it, but I’ve heard the movie is good even from those who loved the book. We’re going to see it tonight. Enjoy it twice!

  2. Beautiful post about a beautiful book! Thank you for reminding me of the moments and emotions that make this book truly special. My favorite quote: His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.

    • Thanks! I still get goosebumps thinking about that book. And YES – I loved that line too. It almost made it into the review, but in the end I decided to keep it for myself, so I’m extra glad you shared it!

  3. The beginning of your post made me laugh because I too have been battling a cold and just finally got around to reading this amazing book. Funny how things align like this.
    I created a discussion blog post here if you would like to be a part of the conversation since you recently read teh book http://theloyalbookworm.wordpress.com/.
    Thank you for your insightful blog and I plan to reblog it myself! I look forward to reading some of your other works!

  4. Reblogged this on The Loyal Bookworm and commented:
    A great summary of The Book Thief! I didn’t want to tell too much to my audience, but if you would like to read more about the plot and the way the book is delivered, check out this page!

  5. someone

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a tragic historical fiction novel following the story of a girl named Liesel and her ordeals in Nazi Germany. Liesel is an orphan girl who gets placed in a foster home at the age of 9 because her mom was so poor that she could not raise Liesel and her little brother. After her brother dies she is left without a family and without friends in a new neighborhood and an almost new world. Central to the book’s theme is the idea that language holds power over people and is empowering. The main ways it is shown are Liesel growing as a person along with learning language, finding out that Hitler’s true power is just in his propaganda, and how reading ends up saving Liesel’s life.
    Learning to read is a key part of Liesel reconstructing her life. At the beginning of the book Liesel’s brother dies and because she is now left alone, she is sent to a foster home near Munich. After this relocation, she has no friends or family and she feels alone and fragile. Liesel has to settle into a new home and find new friends. The bridge to achieving these goals is her learning to trust her foster family, particularly the dad, and then becoming literate through the bond with her new father, Hans Hubermann. The more she learns the closer she becomes to Hans and gains more friends like Rudy, who is her neighbor and about the same age. Once she begins to learn how to interpret letters into sounds, she finds comfort in reading the stories aloud as she and neighbors hide from an air raid in a basement. Learning to read and write helped Liesel settle into her new home and find friends.
    Outside of Liesel’s home in real life, Hitler’s true power came from his skill with words and his clever propaganda. Given the economic problems Germany faced after WWI, Hitler was clever to find a way to focus the bad things happening as the fault of one group in Germany, the Jews. He built the case to distract Germans from results of his poor economic policy. Instead he created posters and slogans to convincing Germans that everything was the fault of the Jews because they were the money lenders, looked funny and that Aryan Germans had “better blood” and therefore they were the “Master Race.” Later in the story, Liesel’s foster family becomes the host of Max, who is a Jew. Max would write stories. In Max’s story “The Word Catcher” he said that Hitler wanted to rule the world. Max wrote from the perspective of Hitler, “‘I will never fire a gun,’ he devised. ‘I will never have to.’” Hitler keeps all of Germany afraid of his power by having his propaganda everywhere and destroying anything that goes against it. The chapter “100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT” is about a parade on Hitler’s birthday. While some might argue that this builds upon the theme of oppression, they forget that the text says that the government was burning books and posters that go against Hitler’s ideals.
    In the end of the book, reading ends up saving Liesel’s life. Liesel would go down to the basement to read and she would even sleep there sometimes. Throughout the book, bombs are dropped on the street where Liesel lives and the residents have to hide in basements. Liesel’s basement is a basement that is good for a bomb shelter. When the bombs drop the town blares alarms so the people can get into their basements. Liesel’s basement was too small for a lot of people to be in it. Also, the last time the bombs were dropped the alarms sounded too late and nobody could get into their basements in time. Liesel was the only person in their basement at the time because she was writing.
    Over the course of Markus Zusak’s best selling book, many themes are discussed. The main theme that is brought up over and over again is that language is power. Many parts of this book support this central idea. Everything from Liesel’s life to Hitler’s power builds on this thought.

    • Interesting summary. I agree that the power of language is a powerful theme in Zusak’s book. Remember the book that Max made, The Standover Man? What did you think of the way that small story fit into the larger story of The Book Thief?

  6. Tyson

    This book is Amaazing

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