Michael's Reviews > The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
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did not like it
bookshelves: abandoned

I am apparently one of the few people who just do not see what all of the hype is about on this one. I was really excited to read this after all of the glowing reviews it got, but I was left extremely disappointed. I found the writing stilted and stuttering (hard to stutter in writing, but this book pulls it off), overly sentimental, and heavy-handed on the symbolism.

I also found the author's approach to the story to be just plain gimmicky. The first and foremost gimmick (also see heavyy-handed symbolism) is that the story is narrated by Death. Now, this might work in some books, but not this one. The choice of narrator adds absolutely nothing to the story; it is only a distraction to the reader, and it also encouraged the author to add trite observations about Death's perspective (for example, he doesn't carry a scythe, but likes the human image) that add nothing to the story. If Death here had been given developed personality or a unique perspective, then maybe (and even then it's a stretch) the choice of narrator would have worked. As it is, the story is told almost entirely as though by an omniscient narrator (is Death omniscient?) and we get absolutely nothing from the choice of Death to fill the role. It's a gimmick, and it falls flat.

The other gimmick I found most distracting (these are not the only two, but they are the most egregious) is the repeated use of little newsflash-type, bold and centered notes that appear periodically through the story to highlight some stupid point and add (in the author's mind) dramatic effect. These newsflashes, as I think of them, were irritating and served only to break up the natural narrative flow without adding anything significant. This is another example of the author hitting the reader over the head with his points, rather than trusting his own writing to get the message across. This is another ill-conceived and heavy-handed gimmick intended to correct for a poor narrative.

I think it is telling that while this book gets listed as teen fiction, Zusak actually wrote it for adults. For some reason, it got identified as being for teens when it got marketed in the U.S. (it was written in Australia). It seems to me that the explanation for this change is that the novel feels like it was written by a very immature author, and so the prose does not attain the quality one should expect of adult fiction.

I think good Holocaust stories need to be told, but the Book Thief fails at that endeavor. The story is trite; the narrative is sentimental and uninspired. I recommend that you look elsewhere for something better. If you want something for younger readers, try Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. If you're a bit older, also read Night by Elie Weisel or the Diary of Anne Frank. I might even add in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, to counteract the heavy-handed book-burning theme of the Book Thief. There's plenty more out there that better deserve your time and attention than does this book.
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Reading Progress

June 10, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
June 24, 2008 – Finished Reading
August 9, 2014 – Shelved as: abandoned

Comments Showing 1-50 of 96 (96 new)

Duchess32 I found this review appalling. If you thought it was stupid and pointless through the entire story, why did you even read the entire thing, unless you didn't.
First of all, Death did develop a personality throughout the story. Zusak did a fantastic job of telling it through death's perspective, because it was during the holocaust; death is ALL AROUND.
The novel was not stuttery. The flowing descriptions such as: the breakfast colored sun; and: hair like feathers; were absolutely exquisite and unique.
This was a good viewpoint at the time of the holocaust.

Stella Michael, I absolutely agree with you. I think you summed it up perfectly in your first paragraph what my problem was with this book.

Duchess, I think that if you still continue reading through a novel you find yourself struggling with, that only shows
1) determination
2) to be able to judge the book fairly.

Because if you criticise something after you have read the whole novel and you have seen it all, then you can state your problems with the writing/story/style, etc. fairly, since you are informed. I think nothing is worse than bashing something you don't know and you haven't taken the time and effort to know. So I applaud Michael's critique, because it was founded. And justified. And expressed my thoughts exactly.

(Also thanks for the recommendations Michael, will check them out)

message 3: by Maggie (last edited May 05, 2009 06:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Maggie I agree with Duchess. If you don't enjoy a book, just abandon it and find something more worth your while.

message 4: by Donitello (new)

Donitello I have to agree with Michael. I'm struggling through this book currently, and every one of his (Michael's) comments has been in my mind the whole time. What surprises me is the statement that the book was originally written for an adult audience! Surely not...? That would make the writing even more lamentable, to my mind.

Overall, just another mediocre piece of writing that has gotten lots of attention because it came out through a big publishing house that decided to spend money publicizing it. The author had written three other books, the last of which won an award for young adult fiction; he seemed like a good risk, so the contract and the publicity budget went to him rather than some lesser-known writer who may have been far better. A perfect example of today's risk-averse literary industry -- and Ted Weinstein's observation that "the 7 most important words in publishing today are 'It's nice to see you again Oprah.'" Ha!

Danielle I extremely disagree with your review. I found this book to be completely original and engrossing.
I did not find Death to be a gimmick, and I found your opinion of the character "Death's perspective (for example, he doesn't carry a scythe, but likes the human image) that add nothing to the story" is totally wrong because it shows that although he is death he has a sense of humor, human characteristics even.

Cheryl I find this book to have nothing michaels hails it to have, I find it engrossing and a unique perspective of how even regular german folks suffered through that war, That the had little to eat and struggled everyday and i find that perspective to be enlightning to man. I completely disagree with Micheal.

message 7: by Ann (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Sometimes a book hits a person the wrong way. Each reading melds the reader and the written. Obviously when a book this powerful evokes such a strong reaction, then its wrong for that reader [at that time:]. No blame, no shame, no need to keep the book.
I, however, have strong positive thoughts and feelings about this book.

message 8: by Irritus (new)

Irritus I too found this review to be incredibly negative and a gross insult to the literary genius of "The book thief."
The thing that bothers me the MOST about this is suggesting that death DOES NOT HAVE A UNIQUE PERSONALITY. The charecter of death in this novel is far more origional than any other author's interpretation of the concept. "I am haunted by you humans." The irony of the charecter is a break through in the concept of death. Even then, wouldn't death express SOME humanity after spending countless ages around the human race? Also, unless death is in actuality a non-thinking, shrewd, scythe wielding chop-your-head-off kind of being then this may actually hold some truth. Imagine yourself, or for that matter, ANY being spending coutnless time on earth witnessing the attrocities and generosities of the human race while carting millions of souls from said place to who knows where. There is no doubt he/she/it would be affected by the world.

Also, books without symbology are for the shallow minded....

If anything, "the book thief" is a beutiful, interesting journey that embodies the power of words and the state of humanity.
Definetally one of my top reads!
(five stars)

message 9: by Erin (last edited Oct 08, 2010 10:10AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Erin Okay, Death's personality is NOT UNIQUE. He's the archetypal trite, gloomy, psuedo-intellectual snarker that appears so often in all kinds of media. I just found his character so aggravating. I'm sorry, it does NOT take a genius to turn around the tables so that Death is 'haunted by you humans'. And while it's not a wholly bad idea by any means, I really do not feel that Zusak made any good use of the character.

message 10: by Angel (new)

Angel I could not make it through this one. I was so looking forward to it after all the praise, but I was bored with it. More than likely I will give it another go ...

message 11: by Lia (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lia T. Huh, you hated the newsflash thingys? I kind of liked them, but I have heard people say that they were kind of interrupting. Also, I appreciated the language and originality. Well, I read Night and Fahrenheit 451 and I loved them both, so maybe you do have good taste after all.

message 12: by Sharon (last edited Jan 05, 2011 08:07AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Sharon What I don't understand is the several commenters saying that, because THEY enjoyed the book and disagree with the review, that Michael is wrong, he should not have finished it, etc. But if he had not finished it and written a review they would have said his review is not valid because he didn't finish it!
I actually agree with all of his points and I'm finding it very difficult to continue to the end, but I will because some people say the end is the best bit, and because I swapped this book fo another so I might as well get my money's worth!
Apart from the points Michael makes the story to me just meanders along from one episode to the next, and all disconnected; and the style is too self-conscious. I hate these short paragraphs.
Like this.
When he wants to make an important point.
But the point is not too important at all.
See what I mean?
Anyway, each to his taste. Those who loved the book can rejoice over the fact that they are in the majority; but please leave those of us who didn't to share our views as to why. I wouldn't dream of comenting on a five star review to tell that person they got it wrong!

message 13: by Ali (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ali I think Death is so important within this time period that he is an appropriate narrator. The newsflash thing annoyed me at first but it just became a part of the story for me. I don't see Death's side notes as a distraction - they are a part of this story because they are a part of the time.

Natalie I love this book and love how death is narrating it, how appropriate! And I actually really liked the newsflash thing, especially the: here is a small fact, you are going to die.

Renee I don't have much to say. I just find it funny that you liked night and fahrenheit 451 and the like. I loved those and I loved this book. For the same reasons at that. Do you think the lack of classic-"ness" has something to do with why you don't like it?

Heather Crabbe I don't understand why people review books they have not finished. Why bother???

message 17: by Noel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Noel I loved that Death was the narrator. This story takes place during WWII in Germany. Death was everywhere and people were dying left and right, so having Death as the narrator helps show that WWII sucked. Especially for a little girl living in Germany have just lost her brother and her parents. And for everyone saying that it was too sentimental, how? Saying that it's unrealistic or anything like that is stupid. Have any of you ever read or listened to stories of Holocaust survivors? Living through it and helping Jews or being a Jew that was saved by somebody else has huge sentimental value to the people involved

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

The other gimmick I found most distracting (these are not the only two, but they are the most egregious) is the repeated use of little newsflash-type, bold and centered notes that appear periodically through the story to highlight some stupid point"
... I forgot to add that to my review: the use of the silent movie titles. Oh yea did they give me the veritable irrits.

Sonia Jarmula I completely disagree. How can you say that Death is not interesting? He's wonderfully personified, it's incredibly moving to see that he is broken by humans and haunted by them. By making Death have such emotions, Zusak definitely was able to better illuminate how ugly and beautiful our world is. You can be annoyed by the newsprint stuff, but this is extraordinary stuff, I'm truly sad that you cannot see it.

Sonia Jarmula Duchess32 wrote: "I found this review appalling. If you thought it was stupid and pointless through the entire story, why did you even read the entire thing, unless you didn't.
First of all, Death did develop a pe..."


Kerri Stella wrote: "Michael, I absolutely agree with you. I think you summed it up perfectly in your first paragraph what my problem was with this book.

Duchess, I think that if you still continue reading through ..."

Wait, Michael put the Book Thief into his "couldn't-wouldn't-finish" shelf...so he didn't finish the book?

Rikki 'Maybe in other stories, [death as narrator] would worked, but not this one' - I don't know of a more suitable scenario to have death narrate than the Holocaust. What other entity/person would have the same story to tell? Who else was present more at that time than death?

Judith Arvesu The things that disliked were the same things that bothered me. I completely agree with your review and might also put this in my couldn't-finish-shelf.

message 24: by Arwa (new) - rated it 1 star

Arwa Jebril i 100% agree with you..and honestly i couldnt finish it!

message 25: by Markus (new) - added it

Markus The book is horrible. Mikey is spot on. You are allowed to like it if you are under 15 years of age or mentally handicapped.

message 26: by Kris (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kris *sigh*

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That's what makes us different and unique. Michael is free to write what ever he feels about this particular book and if you don't like what he has to say, write your own review. Don't criticize someone else's just because you don't agree. Good thing we aren't discussing religion or politics here. Sheesh!

message 27: by Elana (new) - rated it 1 star

Elana Wow Michael! I never knew a book review could inspire so much controversy. Being a humongous fan of young adult fiction and no where near as well read or interesting as you(i can say this because we are related), I can tell you that I have tried, and failed miserably to read this book on multiple Accounts. I rent it from the library about once a year with high hopes, that this time I'm going to finish it, tbst this time it will be different. I'm not one to read a book if I'm not pretty much immediately captivated and I haven't been Able to get past chapter one with this one. I feel much less bad knowing you hated it, after seeing it on so many best of lists all over the place. I just can't even get into it. Le sigh.

Crystal Michael
I think you wrote a good review here. I say that in part because I loved The Book Thief. But the points you made are valid and I can see why the devices the author used might be aggravating to some people. Many reviews are like a child stomping his foot, but yours is honest and straight-forward. I think it's helpful that you list some books at the end that you think readers might enjoy that cover some of the same topics. Well done.

message 29: by Amin (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amin Muhaimin I agree...with your 1st paragraph boz I was in the same boat, but after all I think the book is not tht bad, whateverit's very good opinion.

message 30: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald Interesting

message 31: by Joel (new)

Joel Wow. See what happens when you pee on the sacred cow?

I haven't yet finished the book, and thus my opinion of it could be dismissed. I have read Michael's review in full however, and believe my opinion of it is as valid as any other.

Michael offered up a coherent review of a book he didn't care for, offered pointed explanation, and suggested some widely read alternates. IMO, that is all you can ask for in a review.

In many cases, the reaction was "You just slammed my favorite book. How dare you!". Forgive me, but sputtering indignation just doesn't make for a forceful rebuttal.

message 32: by Shannon (new)

Shannon While I understood Michael's points, I can't help but disagree. Now I am a twenty year old English major, with no "mental handicap" and I found the book to be beautifully written. I thought it gave an enlightening new perspective into World War II Germany and the character of Death did indeed have depth. I feel as if Zusak had no other choice but to make the narrator as Death. How else could he have made the impacts that he did throughout the book? Zusak humanized Death by giving him emotions, which I found refreshing and humbling. At the same time I can understand why some people do take personal offense to this review, in part because books and our interpretations of them are so personal, but also because, as John Green has said, sometimes books fill us with an evangelical zeal and we feel the need to share that with the world. I can agree that the beginning of the book was initially a challenge to get into, I think that makes the end all the more satisfying and heartbreaking.

Sonia Jarmula That was very well said Shannon, I agree with you 100%. Markus Zusak has, in my opinion, created one of the most affecting and powerful books about the Second World War, and his characterizations of Death brought the book to life and fully explored what it means to be human from a character who was not.

message 34: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen McGrath Am also finding the news flash, centered things very distracting and I am as yet unsure they add anything. Am hoping that by the middle of the book I will love it...so far, I have to admit I am underwhelmed. I don't find myself thinking about the central character during the day as I do with books that grab me, such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, one of my top 3 books ever. I'll stick with it awhile longer, but am not afraid to finally close up a book before finishing it and saying, "OK. I'm done here."

message 35: by Heather (new)

Heather Boudreaux agreed.

message 36: by Susan (new)

Susan Death sometimes sounds like an accountant and at other times like a ham actor. Tone wobbles throughout the book and the style is woeful and sometimes semi-literate.

message 37: by Sandy (new) - added it

Sandy Hackenmueller Perfect review. Thank you for putting in to words what I've felt about this story so far.

message 38: by Susan (new)

Susan I'm also tired of Holocaust exploitation novels. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is another case in point.

message 39: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel Duchess32 wrote: "I found this review appalling. If you thought it was stupid and pointless through the entire story, why did you even read the entire thing, unless you didn't.
First of all, Death did develop a per..."

A mature reader WOULD find this immature. VERY

message 40: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel I HAVE to complete this for the book club meeting, but I secretly keep wishing that a Book Thief will come and steal it , so that I will have an excuse for NOT completing it. This one is a stinker

message 41: by Susan (new)

Susan I had to read it. I was a judge on an award panel. You'll be pleased to know Duchess32, that I was outvoted and the book got the prize.

message 42: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel Shannon wrote: "While I understood Michael's points, I can't help but disagree. Now I am a twenty year old English major, with no "mental handicap" and I found the book to be beautifully written. I thought it gave..."

All I can say is that if you found this book any good at all, drop literature now! Anything else is going to be right over your head and I include Winnie the Pooh and Grimms's Fairy tales

message 43: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel Dear Irritus, there is no such thing as Death stalking around collecting souls. So the rest of your rant falls flat. To use an omniscient narrator belong to novels of the 17th and 18th century. This is what is called 'telling' and not 'showing'. Seeing as you expect Death to be watching out for you, with his sense of humour and all, just pray when your time comes there are no battles with casualties on the other side of the planet otherwise you soul might never be collected.....

message 44: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel Sharon wrote: "What I don't understand is the several commenters saying that, because THEY enjoyed the book and disagree with the review, that Michael is wrong, he should not have finished it, etc. But if he had ..."

What disturbs me very deeply is that so many people liked this book? It is so the opposite of a good book. If you love this shallow, simplistic novel then then there is NO HOPE for well written books with characters that feel real (other than silver-eyed accordion players)
This said it for me
A Review of the film
But the biggest problem with The Book Thief is its complete lack of anything new, informative, or insightful, making it feel like it was written by someone who knew nothing about World War II other than what they'd seen in a handful of movies, but really wanted to make sure you knew that some Germans during Nazi rule were actually pretty nice....

message 45: by Annett (new)

Annett Seriously, the Horde of "fans" of this book who jump right in to attack Michael for his different view of the book makes me want to read the whole Thing even less. People who like reading should be ashamed of themselves for wanting to force their view of a book on others. Michael doesn't like the book and has some good reasons for it. Just like all the others might have their own reasons for liking the book. Being childish and throwing dirt at Michael isn't shedding a very good light on the personality of those who enjoy this book - and ultimately on the book itself. If it attracts that Kind of personality, I'd really rather pass. This is a very good Review that gives another perspective to what to expect from this book. I am so happy to have that! Thank you, Michael!

Astrid Turner ***A NOTICE TO INFORM YOU THAT THIS COMMENT WILL AGREE WITH THE ABOVE REVIEW BY MICHAEL*** I rather admired this review. It is straightforward and spot-on. I haven't finished The Book Thief yet but it is so tedious and infuriating that I had to check its reviews because I wondered if I could possibly be alone in the world with my intense hatred for the interrupting narrator. The newsflash bits are completely unnecessary and patronizing. Even when I skip them altogether and ignore them, I'm still bothered by the fact that they are THERE. I am struggling to finish this book but unfortunately, I flipped forward and noticed that ridiculous bold, all-caps font throughout the entire story, and I don't know if I have the strength to endure it.

Britney Michael, I've got your back. I really wanted to like this book... I'm a German teacher, for Pete's sake. I just couldn't get into it. I think I'm gonna call it quits. "I am the Messenger" by Zusak, however, I could not put down.

message 48: by Adam (new)

Adam Gottbetter I see what you mean. I am a voracious reader, but just could not appreciate this book. I felt like Markus Zusak was trying too hard to make it artsy. It was a bit like going into an over decorated Texas McMansion. Yes, it is the darkest of subjects, but the figurative language chokes the life out of the story.
Yes, it appears that most of the people love it, but I am not one of them and would never tell my friends to read it. - Adam Gottbetter

message 49: by Emma (new)

Emma Annett: Wait. Hold on. Every single book I have ever read, every TV series or movie I've watched, every band I've listened to have all had fans that were ready to defend the item no matter what. Yes, there are people like that *everywhere*. Before you form any opinions about the book, I suggest you read it, and DON'T make your decision to finish it based on a group of people that shows up everywhere. The fact that this book has fans that maybe don't approach different opinions on the book as maturely as they should is no reason to not read a book. It is never a good reason, and I strongly discourage you from judging an item on its fans.

message 50: by Emi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emi I agree with Emma.

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