Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review: THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

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. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she 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 before he is marched to Dachau.

This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.
The Book Thief has been touted as a classic. You all know how I feel about classics. (Hint: Not a fan.) But so many people have raved about it, and it's on my Summer Reads list, so I figured I was morally obligated to read it, in a way.

I'm not sure I can review this book in the normal fashion. I mean, it's not really a normal book. There isn't much in the way of romance, nor much in the way of heart-pounding action. The narration hops around in time and doesn't do twists very well. I mean, there are twists, but we're told what they are and when they're coming ahead of time.

So this isn't going to be a normal review, but here's what I can say. It may not be a normal book, but The Book Thief is one of the most gorgeous books I've ever read.
I am such a word nerd, it's not even funny. In college, I lived with a psych major who had a love affair with higher-level math courses and a health science major who moonlighted as a ballerina. We all had our artistic sides, but words and phrases were my thing. I was the one who would ooh and aah over the GRE vocabulary flashcards.

Words and beautiful descriptions curl up inside of me. Do you know those rare moments in life where something perfect happens and you can't help but stop and suck on it like a lollipop? It could be a heartwarming memory, a beautiful painting, a song. Sometimes it's just when you look up and realize that for one second, everything is right. That's what finely crafted writing does to me.

That's what The Book Thief did to me.

My gosh, I am such a word nerd. See what I mean about this not being a normal review? Don't get me wrong, the story was good. Liesel (the book thief) is a charming protagonist. She's stubborn and foul-mouthed (but in German, so she could've been calling people snookums for all I cared). She's whip-smart and feisty, and just all-around someone I loved rooting for. I also liked that she stole books for herself. I didn't want to read a story with a virtuous heroine who saved books from the fire because of an author's political views on censorship or whatever. The story's set in WWII Germany. There's enough subtle messages that can be picked up without outright moralizing.

The narrator, Death, was really awesome, too. I kept getting distracted by trying to figure out the physics of him (is he the only one? is he immortal? he gets tired, so what happens if he gets too tired?), but he was such an enjoyable guide with his lists and little asides. He was also horrible about spoiling upcoming events. Normally, having stuff spoiled would drive me insane, but I was so grateful in this book. It's WWII Germany. People die, often senselessly and brutally. The freaking Holocaust is going on. I needed the forewarning Death gave.

But the best thing about Death is that he's the mouthpiece for Zusak's indescribably delicious phrases.

Death likes color. Did you know that? He talks about color all the time, and I LOVE it. In one chapter, chapter six I think it is, Death talks about Liesel's books and how her tenth book is delivered by a "soft, yellow-dressed afternoon."

Am I the only one who gets excited over that phrase? It's PERFECT! I can picture it, feel it, taste it.

The Book Thief is teeming with these descriptions. "Shivering" snow and the "long legs of daylight" and the sky "simmering and boiling like a soup" and all the warm, comforting descriptions of her papa's smell. Too many authors ignore the other senses, whereas Zusak made me feel like I'd taken some delightful form of LSD. Not one sense was ignored, and every sensation was so blissfully heightened that even now it leaves me grasping for words to describe it, and I just can't come up with the right ones.

You never really realize how much of an experience you miss when cliches are used. Even cliches that really, really fit take away a bit of the edge. But then you read a gorgeous book about stars that burn your eyes and words being rung out like rain from a cloud and gray being the color of Europe and a twig-haired fistfighter boxing with the Fuhrer in a cellar, and you realize that you had no idea how beautiful the world really is.

Points Added For: Sheer, blow-your-mind wordvana; a drily humorous Death; every single freaking character who ambles onto the page, because I love them all (Liesel, Rudy, Max, Papa, Mama, the mayor's wife, etc. etc.); one of the best closing lines ever.

Points Subtracted For: Making me cry. Enough with the crying books already!

Good For Fans Of: The Anne of Green Gables series (the only other books I've ever read that can compare, word-wise), Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (the narrations are similar), REALLY AMAZING WORD USAGE.

Notes For Parents: This book is about World War II. It can be a bit disturbing, especially as the horrors really did happen. People die. People are hurt. There is also cursing (mostly in German, but also some in English).

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