Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
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Dec 04, 13

bookshelves: ya, 2008, favourite, historical-fiction, magical-realism, made-me-cry, cover-love
Read in April, 2008

This is a book to treasure, a new classic. I absolutely loved it.

Set in Germany in the years 1939-1943, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, narrated by Death who has in his possession the book she wrote about these years. So, in a way, they are both book thieves. Liesel steals randomly at first, and later more methodically, but she's never greedy. Death pockets Liesel's notebook after she leaves it, forgotten in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her street, her home, and carries it with him.

Liesel is effectively an orphan. She never knew her father, her mother disappears after delivering her to her new foster parents, and her younger brother died on the train to Molching where the foster parents live. Death first encounters nine-year-old Liesel when her brother dies, and hangs around long enough to watch her steal her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, left lying in the snow by her brother's grave.

Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Herbermann, are poor Germans given a small allowance to take her in. Hans, a tall, quiet man with silver eyes, is a painter (of houses etc.) and plays the accordian. He teaches Liesel how to read and write. Rosa is gruff and swears a lot but has a big heart, and does laundry for rich people in the town. Liesel becomes best friends with her neighbour Rudy, a boy with "hair the colour of lemons" who idolises the black Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens.

One night a Jew turns up in their home. He's the son of a friend of Hans from the first world war, the man who taught him the accordian, whose widowed wife Hans promised to help if she ever needed it. Hans is a German who does not hate Jews, though he knows the risk he and his family are taking, letting Max live in the basement. Max and Liesel become close friends, and he writes an absolutely beautiful story for her, called The Standover Man, which damn near broke my heart. It's the story of Max, growing up and coming to Liesel's home, and it's painted over white-painted pages of Mein Kampf, which you can see through the paint.

Whenever I read a book, I cannot help but read it in two ways: the story itself, and how it's written. They're not quite inseparable, but they definitely support each other. With The Book Thief, Markus Zusak has shown he's a writer of genius, an artist of words, a poet, a literary marvel. His writing is lyrical, haunting, poetic, profound. Death is rendered vividly, a lonely, haunted being who is drawn to children, who has had a lot of time to contemplate human nature and wonder at it. Liesel is very real, a child living a child's life of soccer in the street, stolen pleasures, sudden passions and a full heart while around her bombs drop, maimed veterans hang themselves, bereaved parents move like ghosts, Gestapo take children away and the dirty skeletons of Jews are paraded through the town.

Many things save this book from being all-out depressing. It's never morbid, for a start. A lively humour dances through the pages, and the richness of the descriptions as well as the richness of the characters' hearts cannot fail to lift you up. Also, it's great to read such a balanced story, where ordinary Germans - even those who are blond and blue-eyed - are as much at risk of losing their lives, of being persecuted, as the Jews themselves.

I can't go any further without talking about the writing itself. From the very first title page, you know you're in for something very special indeed. The only way to really show you what I mean is to select a few quotes (and I wish I was better at keeping track of lines I love).

"As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man's voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him." (p187)

"Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew." (p.239)

"The book was released gloriously from his hand. It opened and flapped, the pages rattling as it covered ground in the air. More abruptly than expected, it stopped and appeared to be sucked towards the water. It clapped when it hit the surface and began to float downstream." (p.325)

"So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone." (p.331)

"After ten minutes or so, what was most prominent in the cellar was a kind of non-movement. Their bodies were welded together and only their feet changed position or pressure. Stillness was shackled to their faces. They watched each other and waited." (p.402)

"People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched. As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams - planks of sun - falling randomly, wonderfully, onto the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. "It's such a beautiful day," he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this." (pp.543-4)

Writing like this is not something just anyone can do: it's true art. Only a writer of Zusak's talent could make this story work, and coud get away with such a proliferation of adjectives and adverbs, to write in such a way as to revitalise the language and use words to paint emotion and a vivid visual landscape in a way you'd never before encountered. This is a book about the power of words and language, and it is fitting that it is written in just such this way.

The way this book was written also makes me think of a musical, or an elaborate, flamboyant stage-play. It's in the title pages for each part, in Death's asides and manner of emphasing little details or even speech, in the way Death narrates, giving us the ending at the beginning, giving little melodrammatic pronouncements that make you shiver. It's probably the first book I've read that makes me feel how I feel watching The Phantom of the Opera, if that helps explain it.

And it made me cry.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 57) (57 new)


Jennifer What a fabulous, well thought out review! Now I have to read the book.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Well I really hope you like it as much as I did!


Tara I really enjoyed reading your review! It's funny, cause I saw your review the same day that the morning radio show I listen to while getting ready for work stated that this same book was their pick for their April book club.

I'm really excited to read this book and have added it to my "to read" shelf as well as my "peaked my interest" shelf. I've heard nothing but great things about this book and your review has definitely helped plant this book in my head as the next book I HAVE to read! Thanks for the review!


Shannon (Giraffe Days) I haven't come across anything but positive reviews for this book either - and there aren't many books you can say that of! But reviews don't mean much to me, I prefer to read a book first and form my own opinion without it being coloured by the impressions of others, so I hope I haven't spoiled this for you without intending to! Though, I don't think I could...

I love to come back to this review simply to re-read the quotes I put in, because I love the writing so much. I find it so calming, it really lifts me out of my own fug :)


Tara You haven't spoiled the book for me at all. I don't think I would have even considered reading this book if it hadn't been for the combination of your review and the morning show DJs discussion about it. I can't remember the last time I came across a book that a lot of people were raving about. :)


Abbie WOW!


Bruce Wonderful review, thanks. Really seems to open up the content beneath the covers without betraying or selling it short. A dear friend of mine told me I *had* to read this and promised to lend me a copy. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," I thought, in part because I've got 8 things on the nightstand. But I think, having read your review, I can start to appreciate what he saw in it and look forward to getting my hands on the copy. So as soon as he drops it by I know what I'll be reading next!


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Thanks, I hope you enjoy it too :)


Lisa Vegan Shannon, I enjoyed this book too and I love you review; it's made me think more about the book and now I'm considering putting it on my favorites shelf.


message 10: by Tara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tara Shannon -- I finally read this book and really loved it. I reread your review after I finished the book and it is just so thorough and well-thought-out. Thanks again for your thoughtful review, it added to my enjoyment of the book and I'm really glad that I finally read it. Wonderful story!


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Thanks Lisa and Tara, I'm glad you both enjoyed it too :) It might not be a book for everyone but it certainly touched me.


message 12: by Xysea (new) - added it

Xysea Hi Shannon,

This is another on my to-read list. I'm anxious to read it more now, after having read your review. :)


Michael This is sucha fabulous fabulous book!!!

It's on my "Recommend To Everyone" List.


message 14: by Jess (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jess I love this book, but can never describe what makes it so amazing. You hit the nail right on the head; a great review.


Becky This is one of my absolute favorite books. I recommend it to everyone that I possibly can!

Not to be cliche, but whenever I hear the term "heartbreaking and beautiful" (or any combination of the two) this book comes to mind. The Book Thief stayed with me for a long, long time after I read it.

Your review is very well written - I wish that I had the ability to express what I love about books that way... But I suppose that's why I read books and don't write them!

I definitely recommend Zusak's I am the Messenger as well... It is quite different from The Book Thief but it is also very, very good. I look forward to your review of that one!


message 16: by Robin (new) - added it

Robin I'm going to check this out. Thank you.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Becky, I picked up I Am The Messenger last month, can't wait to read it! I really struggle to express how I feel about a book and a lot of the time I'm disappointed with the end product. It's really nice that you think this was well written, thanks :)


message 18: by Becky (last edited Sep 17, 2008 06:07AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Becky I think that you will like Messenger. I believe that it was written before The Book Thief, so it seems younger, almost? Some people were a little put off by the ending, but I thought it was an interesting one and I think I just like Zusak's style...

Plus it's set in Australia, and was not Americanized, at least the edition that I had.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Plus it's set in Australia, and was not Americanized, at least the edition that I had.

That's something to look forward to! :) Though until I read it I won't hope...


Becky Well, I will hope for you then! ;)


Louis Fantastic review Shannon.This book definitely will go down as a classic and should not be considered YA Lit as all ages can appreciate.Cant wait to see what you think if Messenger.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Oh I loved The Messenger! Where's that review gone...?


message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

A well written review for a beautiful book.


James A glorious review in the spirit of the book itself.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Thanks James - I take it you liked it too? ;)


James Shannon wrote: "Thanks James - I take it you liked it too? ;)"

I really did, Shannon. But it took your review to remind me of how good a book it really is. Many thanks again.


Christa Great review and I fully agree. I love this book!


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Christa wrote: "Great review and I fully agree. I love this book!"

Have you read anything else by Zusak, Christa? I've only read I Am the Messenger but I thought it was excellent - different, but very good. He hasn't had a new book in quite a while; I hope he's working on something!


Christa No, I haven't read anything else yet, but I'm definitely going to. I Am the Messenger does sound interesting.
Thanks,
Christa


George Zusack did return the mind that I thought for a while wasn't mine. Death closed my eyes until I left Himmel Street... I'm now searching to find later to join what fate has to offer me..... Favourite Character: Rudy Steiner aka ... Charcoaled Jesse Owens lol


message 32: by Tori (new) - added it

Tori This review is absolutely beautiful.


George I agree Tori


message 34: by Sher (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sher Marie Made me cry too!


message 35: by Sher (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sher Marie Btw, wonderful thorough review.


message 36: by Kiki (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kiki Hiroku Thank you so much for the quotes that you have listed in your comments. They are very useful for AP English students who are doing a serious report on this book. Thank you very much.


message 37: by Yara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Yara I've just finished reading it and you've dobe this story justice by your review. spot on.


message 38: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam This was a really great review!! I absolutely loved the book, and I can't wait to read more like it. You seemed to enjoy it, do you have any recomendations of other books to read?


Brooke I love this book so much and you have written a review about it perfectly! Well Done!!! Oh, and by the way it mad me cry too.


message 40: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald good review. thanks.


message 41: by Shannon (new)

Shannon I absolutely loved the comparison to a play! I had never thought of that but it seems to fitting!


Siddharth Chamaria Great review, I just finished reading it and feel to have read it a year back if I had read your review earlier. Thanks for the wonderful review.


Diana Marie Thank you for saying something positive about this book..I literally just finished it and found it a beautiful book..some of the other reviews are heartless..not all appreciate the underlying feeling to this...I loved it even though I cried


Steph Diana wrote: "Thank you for saying something positive about this book..I literally just finished it and found it a beautiful book..some of the other reviews are heartless..not all appreciate the underlying feeli..."

Same here
'Twas a beautiful book :')


message 45: by Carolprice (new)

Carolprice Loved this story, this beautiful writing so much so had to read it again. The second time around was even better to absorb those amazing descriptions of emotion. What a book to keep and re read.


message 46: by Taugey (new) - added it

Taugey Thanks for your review, you inspired me to start reading this book! :)


David Fritz I loved this review and concur with it totally, as I just finished reading THE BOOK THIEF.


message 48: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel David wrote: "I loved this review and concur with it totally, as I just finished reading THE BOOK THIEF."

One of the all-time worst books I have come across. The story tries so hard to be tear-jerking that it becomes laughable, it feels utterly un-German almost like a bunch of children in Nazi costume (playing The Bad Guys) marching through the streets of small-town Australia. You get the feeling that the author wants to confide at the turning of every page: Oh, how the average German must have longed for us (Allies) to come and save them? Oh never mind that we bombed and killed them, at least their souls were saved?


message 49: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel There were heavy beams - planks of sun - falling randomly, wonderfully, onto the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. "It's such a beautiful day," he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this." One of the all-timme worst bits of prose I ever read. I actually laughed aloud at the 'planks of sun'. I anyone finds that good there is something wrong in the education system.


Linda I very much enjoyed your review, thank you for putting time and effort into it.


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