Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Recommended for: Adults (unedited), Ages 13 to Adult (edited for language & 1 certain chapter)

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

The Book Thief. I believe it is true when it says that it is one of the most enduring stories of all time. It doesn't feel like modern books. It really has the feel and literary quality of a classic. Before I go further, though, I ought to explain my recommendation. This book has language in it, and there is a chapter which has details of a Nazi examination of a teenage boy, which includes a thorough physical exam. Knowing that there were these certain issues, I asked a friend (who edited her own copy) to edit mine when I found it a library book sale. So I encountered black marks and a paperclipped chapter, enabling me to fully enjoy the book without worrying about running into such issues.

And I truly loved this book. It's just so good. A girl in Nazi Germany whose life is changed by the power of words.

Writing: 4.5/5

I take off half a point only because I don't really feel like the language was necessary. Because this is a brilliantly written book. It is narrated by Death, which sounds really weird, but it works--really well. It's the most unique point of view I've encountered. And just the writing itself.
Some books are so poorly written you wonder how they got published. Some books have mediocre writing that is just sufficient. Some books have great writing that puts you directly into the protagonist's shoes. The Book Thief doesn't even quite fit into that category. No, this writing is a work of art. Each carefully selected word is like a brushstroke on canvas, painting a masterpiece. Such gems of the English language. It is perfection, the (to me) necessary black marks excepted.

Setting: 5/5

I haven't really read many, if any, books about Nazi Germany before. Austria, Holland, England, America, yes, Germany, no. So it was a bit of a new experience. It seemed very true to life. Zusak based the setting off of his own parents' stories of growing up in Nazi Germany. He also did research for the little details. I feel like the setting was pretty authentic. And it was just so real. Molching felt real. Himmel Street felt real. The tension caused by hiding a Jew felt real. And the books. So perfect, especially the mayor's wife's library. 

Plot: 4/5

Well, for the first half or so of the book, it's hard to figure out just what the plot is. I'll just go ahead and tell you that each section is how each book of Liesel's influenced her life. And what a life it is. From taking the dropped Grave Digger's Handbook out of the snow at her brother's graveside, to living with her new foster parents Hans and Rosa Huberman, to her adventures with best friend and next door neighbor Rudy Steiner, to the book burning and the mayor's wife's library, to school and the Hitler Youth, to Max Vandenburg and the things he taught Liesel from her basement, to the effects of the war on the civilians of Germany...and Death's role throughout it all as he relates the book thief's story. Now, the actual act of stealing books could pose a potential moral problem, but since one was rescued from a book burning and many of them the owner didn't really mind her taking, it doesn't bug me all that much. Liesel and Rudy stealing fruit is kind of bothersome, but it is what it is. They lived under strict rationing. They were hungry. The ending. It's so miserably sad, despite Death giving the reader full warning before it actually happens. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It felt like getting spoilers. Now, I admit I'm kind of addicted to spoilers, but it doesn't feel quite right to get them from the book itself.

Character Development: 4/5

There are other characters I know better, which is the reason for the dropped point, however, I think on a reread I would get to know these much better. As it is, I still love them. They feel like real people. Liesel Meminger. Hans and Rosa. Rudy Steiner. Tommy Muller. Max Vandenburg (who for some reason I thought was much older until the book said he was 24). Frau Holtzapfel. Ilsa Hermann. They're all real people. I'm not sure who my favorite is. It's hard to choose. I like Liesel and Rudy and Hans and Max. They all have such a different role, and I love them each for it. I do really like Rudy, though. I mean, he's a boy who painted himself black and ran an imaginary race to pretend to be Jesse Owens. And he's Liesel's best friend. But nothing could have happened without Hans Huberman. He's the one who taught Liesel to read, the one she can always depend on. And Max, the Jew, the one who wrote The Standover Man and The Word Shaker on painted pages of Mein Kampf, the one who changes Liesel so much. And of course there's the book thief herself, the little girl starving for words, the girl whose life was changed by books. 

It is such a good book. While I do recommend an edited copy, I do think it is a story everyone should experience. It is a story of a time in history, a story of words, a story that Death deemed necessary to relate. The story of Liesel Meminger. The Book Thief.

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