The Book Thief

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak ($7.78)

(This one comes highly recommended by several people in the APC knitting group.  — rls)

Amazon:  Starred Review. Grade 9 Up–Zusak has created a work that deserves the attention of sophisticated teen and adult readers. Death himself narrates the World War II-era story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken, at age nine, to live in Molching, Germany, with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood of tough kids, acid-tongued mothers, and loving fathers who earn their living by the work of their hands. The child arrives having just stolen her first book–although she has not yet learned how to read–and her foster father uses it, The Gravediggers Handbook, to lull her to sleep when shes roused by regular nightmares about her younger brothers death. Across the ensuing years of the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Liesel collects more stolen books as well as a peculiar set of friends: the boy Rudy, the Jewish refugee Max, the mayors reclusive wife (who has a whole library from which she allows Liesel to steal), and especially her foster parents. Zusak not only creates a mesmerizing and original story but also writes with poetic syntax, causing readers to deliberate over phrases and lines, even as the action impels them forward. Death is not a sentimental storyteller, but he does attend to an array of satisfying details, giving Liesels story all the nuances of chance, folly, and fulfilled expectation that it deserves. An extraordinary narrative.–Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger,took a risk with his second book by making Death an omniscient narrator—and it largely paid off. Originally published in Australia and marketed for ages 12 and up, The Book Thief will appeal both to sophisticated teens and adults with its engaging characters and heartbreaking story. The Philadelphia Inquirer compared the book’s power to that of a graphic novel, with its “bold blocks of action.” If Zusak’s postmodern insertions (Death’s commentary, for example) didn’t please everyone, the only serious criticism came from Janet Maslin, who faulted the book’s “Vonnegut whimsy” and Lemony Snicket-like manipulation. Yet even she admitted that The Book Thief “will be widely read and admired because it tells a story in which books become treasures.” And, as we all know, “there’s no arguing with a sentiment like that.”<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Gr. 10-12. Death is the narrator of this lengthy, powerful story of a town in Nazi Germany. He is a kindly, caring Death, overwhelmed by the souls he has to collect from people in the gas chambers, from soldiers on the battlefields, and from civilians killed in bombings. Death focuses on a young orphan, Liesl; her loving foster parents; the Jewish fugitive they are hiding; and a wild but gentle teen neighbor, Rudy, who defies the Hitler Youth and convinces Liesl to steal for fun. After Liesl learns to read, she steals books from everywhere. When she reads a book in the bomb shelter, even a Nazi woman is enthralled. Then the book thief writes her own story. There’s too much commentary at the outset, and too much switching from past to present time, but as in Zusak’s enthralling I Am the Messenger (2004), the astonishing characters, drawn without sentimentality, will grab readers. More than the overt message about the power of words, it’s Liesl’s confrontation with horrifying cruelty and her discovery of kindness in unexpected places that tell the heartbreaking truth. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Brilliant and hugely ambitious…Some will argue that a book so difficult and sad may not be appropriate for teenage readers…Adults will probably like it (this one did), but it’s a great young-adult novel…It’s the kind of book that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, The Book Thief offers us a believable hard-won hope…The hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence. Young readers need such alternatives to ideological rigidity, and such explorations of how stories matter. And so, come to think of it, do adults.” New York Times, May 14, 2006The Book Thief is unsettling and unsentimental, yet ultimately poetic. Its grimness and tragedy run through the reader’s mind like a black-and-white movie, bereft of the colors of life. Zusak may not have lived under Nazi domination, but The Book Thief deserves a place on the same shelf with The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. It seems poised to become a classic.”
– USA Today

“Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable the same way Kurt Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse-Five: with grim, darkly consoling humor.”
– Time Magazine

“Elegant, philosophical and moving…Beautiful and important.” 
– Kirkus Reviews, Starred
“This hefty volume is an achievement…a challenging book in both length
and subject…”
– Publisher’s Weekly, Starred”One of the most highly anticipated young-adult books in years.”
– The Wall Street Journal

“Exquisitely written and memorably populated, Zusak’s poignant tribute to words, survival, and their curiously inevitable entwinement is a tour de force to be not just read but inhabited.”
– The Horn Book Magazine, Starred

“An extraordinary narrative.”
– School Library Journal, Starred

The Book Thief will be appreciated for Mr. Zusak’s audacity, also on display in his earlier I Am the Messenger. It will be widely read and admired because it tells a story in which books become treasures. And because there’s no arguing with a sentiment like that.”
– New York Times

About the Author

Markus Zusak is the author of I Am the Messenger, winner of the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year in Australia, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and Getting the Girl. The author lives in Sydney, Australia.From the Hardcover edition.

From The Washington Post

Death, it turns out, is not proud.The narrator of The Book Thief is many things — sardonic, wry, darkly humorous, compassionate — but not especially proud. As author Marcus Zusak channels him, Death — who doesn’t carry a scythe but gets a kick out of the idea — is as afraid of humans as humans are of him.Knopf is blitz-marketing this 550-page book set in Nazi Germany as a young-adult novel, though it was published in the author’s native Australia for grown-ups. (Zusak, 30, has written several books for kids, including the award-winning I Am the Messenger.) The book’s length, subject matter and approach might give early teen readers pause, but those who can get beyond the rather confusing first pages will find an absorbing and searing narrative.Death meets the book thief, a 9-year-old girl named Liesel Meminger, when he comes to take her little brother, and she becomes an enduring force in his life, despite his efforts to resist her. “I traveled the globe . . . handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity,” Death writes. “I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger’s brother. I did not heed my advice.” As Death lingers at the burial, he watches the girl, who can’t yet read, steal a gravedigger’s instruction manual. Thus Liesel is touched first by Death, then by words, as if she knows she’ll need their comfort during the hardships ahead.

And there are plenty to come. Liesel’s father has already been carted off for being a communist and soon her mother disappears, too, leaving her in the care of foster parents: the accordion-playing, silver-eyed Hans Hubermann and his wife, Rosa, who has a face like “creased-up cardboard.” Liesel’s new family lives on the unfortunately named Himmel (Heaven) Street, in a small town on the outskirts of Munich populated by vivid characters: from the blond-haired boy who relates to Jesse Owens to the mayor’s wife who hides from despair in her library. They are, for the most part, foul-spoken but good-hearted folks, some of whom have the strength to stand up to the Nazis in small but telling ways.

Stolen books form the spine of the story. Though Liesel’s foster father realizes the subject matter isn’t ideal, he uses “The Grave Digger’s Handbook” to teach her to read. “If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right,” he tells her, and she solemnly agrees. Reading opens new worlds to her; soon she is looking for other material for distraction. She rescues a book from a pile being burned by the Nazis, then begins stealing more books from the mayor’s wife. After a Jewish fist-fighter hides behind a copy of Mein Kampf as he makes his way to the relative safety of the Hubermanns’ basement, he then literally whitewashes the pages to create his own book for Liesel, which sustains her through her darkest times. Other books come in handy as diversions during bombing raids or hedges against grief. And it is the book she is writing herself that, ultimately, will save Liesel’s life.

Death recounts all this mostly dispassionately — you can tell he almost hates to be involved. His language is spare but evocative, and he’s fond of emphasizing points with bold type and centered pronouncements, just to make sure you get them (how almost endearing that is, that Death feels a need to emphasize anything). “A NICE THOUGHT,” Death will suddenly announce, or “A KEY WORD.” He’s also full of deft descriptions: “Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.”

Death, like Liesel, has a way with words. And he recognizes them not only for the good they can do, but for the evil as well. What would Hitler have been, after all, without words? As this book reminds us, what would any of us be?

Reviewed by Elizabeth Chang
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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