Books we Love: The Book Thief

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Books we Love: The Book Thief

book-thiefI’ll admit it: I can be a hater. Sometimes when I hear too much hype about a book/film/band I’m less inclined to check it out. Maybe I miss the pre-internet joy of being one of the select few to really love and appreciate something. Whatever the reason, when I heard everyone talking up Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, I didn’t want to read it. The front cover, after all, claims, “It’s the kind of book that can be life changing.” Seriously? No thanks. For my job, however, it’s best to familiarize myself with books that have worked, so I begrudgingly bought the paperback and shoved it on a shelf.

When I finally got to reading, it didn’t take long for me to concede that the book was special. In the simplest sense, The Book Thief is about a young girl who is taken into foster care in World War II Germany, learns to read and steal books, and who aids in hiding a Jewish man in the basement, although summing up the book like that is like saying Anna Karenina is about a woman and a train. It’s full of tragedy, joy, sorrow, humor, and everything else that makes up a terrific work.

I loved the idea of a story narrated by Death. I loved the staccato breaks within chapters, hitting the page like bursts of gunfire. I loved the multiple characters, and how we could jump from one section to focus on someone other than Liesel, the main protagonist.

After I’d been reading the book for two months, I was still only halfway through, and I was beginning to be heckled at home. “You’re still reading that?” said my detractor. The truth was, I didn’t want the story to end.

You see, while there are many surprises in the book, the one thing the reader knows is the ending. Death spells out what’s to come early on. And it’s almost with a sense of dread that I’d flip each page, knowing I’d be closer to the inevitable conclusion.

Not only that, but I was also reading slowly because the writing was so damned good. Navigating the pages was like searching a field of rocks for pieces of diamonds. Some of Zusak’s descriptions–“Rain like gray pencil shavings,” “The light in the window was gray and orange, the color of summer’s skin,” “My cursed circular heartbeat, revolving like the crime it is in my deathly chest”–made me stop and shake my head over the strength of the language.

Most of all, I loved the risks that Zusak takes. Making the narrator Death. Writing a complicated story set during WWII for young adults (although it was marketed to adults in Zusak’s native Australia). The sprawling nature of the work. In the hands of a weaker writer, these choices could have been disastrous. But not only did they work, they worked with the kind of terrific accomplishment that can only come from great risk.

The Book Thief is really a terrific novel, a hugely ambitious story that makes me pine for something 3/4ths as good landing on my desk one day.

And hey, it proves that many times it’s worth listening to the hype.

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  1. That is such a powerful book. I keep saying that Death was a brave choice to narrate the story. I was often surprised at the moments of humor within the darkness of the situations. We read it in my adult book discussion group at the library, and attendance at the meeting was almost the highest we’ve seen.

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  2. Yeah, Death as the narrator was nothing short of brilliant.

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  3. If anything could qualify as a most exquisite novel this would be it for me. Right next to TKAM.

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  4. The audio version is also amazing. I read the book a few years ago and then listened to it on a road trip this summer, and it’s such a great story to have read aloud to you, to feel like Death really is talking to you and telling you the story. It was awesome because the narrator’s voice was perfect.

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  5. I too read this one very slow – think glacially – and that is really rare for me, who generally reads too fast.

    But for me, the brilliance of the book (beyond the pure beauty and brilliance of the prose), was that I was amazed at how caught up I got in the community Zusak built – all those people in that town…I cared about them. All of them. And with each event, I felt the emotional hit as if it happened to the main character, or someone I had actually met, rather than a small side character in a very full-casted book.

    Yes, it’s about Liesel, and the man her family takes in, but in so many ways what made this book stand apart for me was the depth of concern and attachment I had to all the other people who populated Liesel’s world.

    Emily

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  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marilyn Peake and Emily Kokie, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Books we Love: The Book Thief (http://tinyurl.com/yfgh999) […]

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  7. Okay, okay. Moving it up to the top of the TBR list.

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  8. I’m the Colorado Springs Gazette book recommendation columnist, and recently recommended THE BOOK THIEF. Readers looooved this book and let me know it big time. In terms of the number of people giving me feedback on my column, THE BOOK THIEF is second only to THE ROAD.

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  9. You’ve just convinced me to reread this.

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  10. . . . death as the driving voice is . . . disturbing . . . poetic . . . mysterious . . . look forward to reading the book. Curious, too, is the visual of dominoes on the jacket, lending to the idea of infinite possibilities. In a stretch of the imagination, apply that same infinite notion to authors from the four corners and their respective alphabets/characters, frame of reference, faith, vision—and that should spell job security for Upstart Crow and serve as a challenge for writers . . . .

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  11. I haven’t read the book, but I wanted to say that when I love a story, I also can’t finish the book. I s-l-o-w WAY down in order to keep it at my bedside.
    If that’s how you describe this one, it’s going on my Christmas list tomorrow.

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  12. I admire some books more for their story than their style, and some more for style than story.

    This is one of those rare books that’s incredible on both fronts.

    Unlike some of you, when I’m really liking a book, I power through it. Then I read it again at a more dignified pace. I have no self control. None. And you’re sort of in trouble now for making me want to read it again, @Chris. Saumensch!

    I’ve read The Book Thief at least three times and gone through tons of tissues with each reading. It’s genius how he reveals what’s going to happen and manages to turn lack of surprise into heart-torturing tension anyway. This is definitely my favorite Zusak, and a book I’ve given to many people since it came out. If you haven’t read it, do so!

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  13. I’ve been in a book club for 10 years now and although we usually read literary fiction for adults, a woman in the group picked The Book Thief for our upcoming January meeting. I got it last week and can’t wait to start it.

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  14. I read this post and had to laugh. This book has been sitting on my shelf for two months. I keep skipping over it and reading other books. It can’t be that good, right? Well, lesson learned. Opening it now.

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  15. Amen. The Book Thief is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I reviewed it for http://www.teensreadtoo.com. It’s not often I find a book worth reading twice, there are so many others begging to be read, but this title is just that powerful. His use of words, they way he weaves them together, is nothing short of amazing. I was so impressed with his writing that I also read I Am the Messenger specifically so that I could wrap myself in his words once again. He did not disappoint.

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  16. I feel like I’m at a cocktail party (wearing a dazzling dress, by the way) and feeling twice as ignorant as I should for having not read this book you’re all talking about.
    I’ll have it read by our next party.

    For my favorites, MIDDLEMARCH by Geroge Eliot and BODY AND SOUL by Frank Conroy come to mind.

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  17. […] Zusak’s The Book Thief: I gushed about this one before and won’t repeat myself. Just a wonderful, wonderful book that has stuck in my head months […]

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