Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Book Thief (thoughts)

Let me preface this: I try to avoid the Holocaust. I mean, I'm aware that it happened, and I find it inexpressibly sad, but I refuse to watch movies about it. Inevitably, I start crying so hard that I can't see the screen, so it's pointless anyway. I also avoid war movies for the same reason; I can cry at anything involving soldiers. I cried at Pirates of the Caribbean (when the British soldiers are valiantly, hopelessly fighting the immortal pirates): obviously, I have a bit of a problem. It's taken me almost an entire year to read Samantha Power's Pulitzer-winning A Problem From Hell: America in an Age of Genocide. Each chapter chronicles a different genocide, and I can only handle one every month or so. So, although I've read numerous rave reviews about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I had no intention of reading it. Much as I loved the idea of Death as a narrator, I just didn't think I could bring myself to read a book set in Nazi Germany.

And then, as I was browsing the shelves of my library, I saw it sitting there.

And it had a super-cool cover.

And no one else had checked it out.

And that just seemed wrong.

Long story short, I checked it out on Thursday, and started reading it yesterday. I got up to around page 400, then this morning I woke up and finished the rest. As expected, this morning was a tearfest. I was sobbing and shaking and whimpering into a blanket. Needless to say, I was very glad to be alone. I was also very glad that I had read it.

A lot of you have already read this book, or at least heard about it. For those of you who may not, a one-sentence summary. Liesel is a pre-teen in Nazi Germany, whose life Death became interested in, so he's now sharing with us the formative years, from when she was 11 to when she was 14.

When you pick up a book like this, you know it's going to be tragic. I mean, there will be light points, and some characters might end well, but you know that for the majority of characters, something bad will happen. Furthermore, Death foreshadows throughout the book, so the reader knows the ending by about half way through. But the ending isn't the point: it's the getting there that matters.

First of all, I loved the way this book was published. It uses several type scripts, including a special bold centered one with astericks for Death's asides. It makes the book all the more interesting. Also, a certain character within the book ends up making his own book. He paints white over the pages of Mein Kampf and then draws and writes his own stories. Several of these pages are included within the book, and it's just so cool to look at. When I got to the first of these selections, I knew that I was in the hands of an incredible author.

Also, Zusak freely mixes German in with the English. He does it in a way that the reader always knows what the words mean, but the little sprinklings provide a lot of authenticity. The setting is essential to this book, and the author really brings it alive. You know that you're in Germany, and that you couldn't possibly be anywhere else.

This is the kind of book that gets under your skin: at first, you know you're enjoying it, then slowly you realise you don't want to put it down, and finally, even though you know it's going to be horrible, you have to keep reading until the bitter end. And trust me, Zusak delivers.

For me, the real magic of the book is that part of it is simply a coming of age story. Liesel learns more about herself, more about others, and experiences the ups and downs of puberty. The way that Zusak mixes this in with insights into Nazi Germany makes this much more than a WWII/Holocaust book. It's a book that explores how people hate, and how people love, and, ultimately, the incredible power of words over peoples' lives. It's triumphant, tragic, heartrending, and all of those other adjectives whose use has become hackneyed. This book breathes fresh life into all of them.

All in all, I'd say that this is the kind of book that everyone should read, since it's essentially about humanity. However, I'd also caution readers to make sure they don't have company when they're reading the end; Zusak knows just how to bring out emotions. This isn't a beach book by any means, but it's an important book.

I'm not going to share favourite passages yet; the book is still too raw for me to go back and find them. Perhaps I'll add them eventually.


Wendy said...

Ah, I loved this book too - and sobbed for at least the last 100 pages. What a stunning and amazing novel - what a brilliant author. Definitely in my top ten of all times.

Sam Houston said...

That is an incredible review of the book. I enjoyed it at the same time it was making me sad. I marveled at the language and images and all the other skills displayed by this writer and I was amazed to learn that it is targeted at the YA market.

This is one of the best books I've ever read, one that I will not forget.

Great job on the review.

Booklogged said...

I agree, you wrote a very good review. It's one of my favorite books, too. I'm so glad you read it and liked it. Why is it rated YA though?

Dewey said...

This has been on my wishlist for a while, so as soon as I got to the more detailed part of the review, I had to skim. I hope that if/when you notice me reviewing this book, you'll post a link to this in my comments so I can finish reading it then! I'd really like to.

And I have the same emotional reactions to books that deal with tragedies such as war or the Holocaust. It does make them hard to read.

Eva said...

Wendy, glad I'm not the only one who cried!

Sam, glad you enjoyed the review. :) I was really surprised it was a YA book as well.

Booklogged, thanks! I don't know why it's classified as YA, but if I had to guess I'd say it's because it's essentially a coming-of-age story. Maybe they equated it with Anne Frank's Diary.

Dewey, I will! Yeah-reading about such horrible things is very emotionally draining. But worth it.

Gentle Reader said...

I must read this book. So many bloggers I like have enjoyed it--if enjoy is the right word. Most sobbed through it! I usually avoid books about the Holocaust, too, but this sounds like it's really worth reading. Thanks!

Nymeth said...

I've heard such wonders about this book. A lot of people say the same as you - that they cried heavily through the final chapters of the book. It sounds like a painful but necessary story. Thank you for this wonderful review.

Framed said...

Eva, thanks so much for visiting my blog. It gave me the opportunity to read your amazing review of one of my favorites books. It is one book that truly lived up to all the hype I'd read about it. I was not prepared for the sobbing part. No one warned me how sad it was, but incomparably beautiful also.

Eva said...

Gentle Reader, no problem-you really must! Just be prepared, lol.

Nymeth, you're welcome-I'm glad that you enjoyed it. :) I think you hit the nail on the head: painful but necessary. Always good to remember.

Framed, awww-thanks for the compliment. :) I think it surpassed the hype I read about it, but at least I was prepared to cry! I can't imagine going through it with no warning.

iliana said...

I'm like you, I really don't like war books. They just leave me feeling so utterly sad. This book was no exception. I loved it but my god I cried and cried. I haven't reacted to a book like this in a really long time. Great review Eva!

verbivore said...

This is a lovely review. I've seen this book on tons of wish lists and seen it discussed all over the place but I hadn't yet gone to the trouble of seeing what the book was about. Now I'd really like to read it sooner than later!

Heather (errantdreams) said...

I admit, I try to avoid such books and movies too. They're extremely worthwhile and I'm glad they exist. But I'm already hyper-aware of real-life tragedies, and too empathetic to be able to step that close to them. So I read/watch them once in a while, but ONLY once in a while.

Eva said...

Iliana, I hadn't cried at a book in awhile either. But man, did my reaction to this one make up for it!

Verbivore, thank you. :) It's definitely a worthwhile read, just schedule some emotional downtime for when you finish it!

Heather, this was the first book/movie I'd read/watched about WWII in years. So, now I figure in about another decade I'll be ready for another one!

Robin said...

What a wonderful review! I've avoided this book for those very reasons, but after reading your review, I realize that it's really worth reading. Thanks for putting it in gives me the courage to go ahead and read it.

nancy said...

This is a great review and I guess I am going to have to read it. It is hard to read this type of book, I am sure I will sob thru the whole thing.

Eva said...

Robin, thnks for the kind words. :) Good luck with your reading!

Nancy, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I only cried through the last 150 pages, so hopefully you'll have 300 pages of tear-free reading. :)