Monday, February 18, 2013

The Book Thief

Book: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Edition: eBook, read on Overdrive
Read: February 2013
2007. First time
1,086 pages on OverDrive Reader
Rated: 31/2 out of 5

The story starts with Death's soliquey about what he sees and does not feel,how he is only the processor of souls, not a killer of people, how he tries not to be involved in human affairs. But he noticed this little girl, about nine or ten, called Liesel. The book is her story, told by Death.

We first meet Liesel when her brother dies, as they are being taken by their mother, who can no longer care for them, to a foster care agency. Death sees her as he takes her brother's soul. This is where she takes her first book, a gravedigger's guide. Death counts this as her first stolen book.the second is at a book burning in Nazi Germany. She sees a book which has not been destroyed, laying smoldering after the fire has been burnt out. Liesel's family is not Jewish, but the father is a communist. This leads the family to be in desperate straights. The father never appears in the story, even as a memory, well only to introduce the term, communist.

In between these two books, Liesel is given to her foster parents. The mother, Rosa, is a foul-mother, big woman. Most people in Molching are afraid of her. She seems totally into yelling at people, not only when they cross her, but when they get the remotely into her way. But deep, very deep underneath, she has compassion and empathy for those who truly hurt and needy. This comes through just a couple of times in the book.

In contrast, Hans the father, is a compassionate, but uneducated man. When Liesel has nightmares, Hans is there to comfort her. They get into the habit of reading together. This feeds into her love of reading. Hans provides a great deal of strength and comfort to Liesel, maybe not displacing her love for her own mother and brother, but at least creating a large room in Lisel's heart.

Rudy  from the first meeting, is in love with Liesel. But it is an unrequited love as Liesel thinks only of him as a good friend. It is Rudy who is her childhood companion. He alternately takes the lead and follows Liesel in their thefts of food, trinkets, and, yes, books. He does not see her visions in words as he has other dreams. Dreams of becoming the next Jesse Owens, even to the place where one night he covers himself in coal and runs a race in the dark at the local track.

Others characters make up the the scenery behind Liesel. There is Ilsa, the mayor's wife. She is the main "victim" of Liesel's book thievery. Isla knows that Liesel steals her books and does subtle things like keeping the window open to the library, setting out plates of cookies and the like. There is Frau Holtzapfel, Hans and Rosa's neighbor, which Rosa is at war with. But a truce happens when Liesel reads to Holtzapfel. And the list goes on of people whose life Liesel touches and is touched by.

As with any story dealing with Germany under Nazi rule, the war and oppression, including the Jews are a large part of the plot. The family comes into contact with a Jew, who asks for shelter. Their decision leads to some profound ramifications. It also indicates what type of people they are.

Death is portrayed as a person, a neutral person. He can be wherever people die, removing their souls from their body. As a person, he gets tired when numerous people die at once, such as when a bombing occurs. He says he does not take an interest in the people, but he does take special care with certain people. He has a special place for Liesel, first seeing her at her brother's death, and then at certain other key spots. He even picks up Liesel's diary when she loses it, and then returns it when she dies. Because of the impersonal nature of Death, his narration is flat. But is this how death is? Paul says, Death, where is your sting? death hurts, it is not gentle, into the night experience. It is not the intended order, but part of our corruption. Zusak does not say what Death does with the souls he gathers. But Death does have a boss-but Zusak does not say anything about him either. As much as Death is the narrator, Zusak does not say much more than this about him.

For a bibliophilic, the place of words and books is high on the list of things. Zusak places words high. Liesel, from her first book, falls in love with words. She wants to read with Hans. This is. a triangle. Liesel associates words with Hans and Hans is the door which causes Liesel to see the world which words create. But what Liesel sees is more than just words on a page. She has seen the effects of words of a monomagliac in action, how his words roused up a nation in patriotism and hate. She learns that words are dangerous. But she also sees the power of a man's word, causing him to stick his neck out for another human. Others seethe power of words in her. While a man raises up a nation with his words, others see how Liesel's words can start a movement to bring down this man through the truth of her words and action. As Luther's hymn says, one small word can fell him. It is the world shaker.

Zusak has a good feel of a totalitarian state, or at least what I think it would be like to live in one. There is a sense of depression. But not all, or even most are mindless drones. But there is a sense that people will adjust to the conditions and survive. There is a sense where you always need to conform. Such as Hans not being able to get work because he painted over anti-Semitic graffiti. There are those who believe in the leader, those who will favor the regime because of its benefits, those who love dominate and bully. But most just want to be left alone to live out their lives.

Who and how can ordinary people be heroic? Zusak's example is by following their word. Something small, such as I will do anything for you, twenty years before allows a man to live up to his word today. Do we flinch from our words? Or are they measured? Do we live by them? The Psalms says blessed is the man who does not go back on his word, even if it is to his own hurt. As you open one window of compassion, others will present itself. When do you say yes and how?

It is amazing the difference on when you read a book: Are you in a hurry? Tired? Energetic? It makes a difference in your perspective. The first time I read The Book Thief, I felt it to be a pretty flat book, oriented towards a mind which was pretty young and somewhat immature. Consequently, when my book group chose this book, I was not very enthusiastic. But, sometimes with fresh eyes, you can see more.

That is what happened on my second read. The main problem which I had was that Liesel does not show very much life or emotion. She seems to walk through the book without much need to be empathy with her. Not because she lacks suffering, she gets that with in boat loads. But there is a feeling of aloofness, until the end. It is only after she has lost those who loved her does she respond with emotion. That is not to say, she does not care as she goes out and suffers for some of the characters.

The change in my perspective is how I see the story. Previously, the story from death's perspective did not work for me. It seemed too gimmicky. But as I worked through the book a second time, it allowed for a third person to tell Liesel's story, without interacting with the characters. I could feel the suffering, the mind-numbing consequences of living in a totalitarian environment.

Is this a must read book? Probably not. Are you wasting your time by reading it? No!

Notes from my book group:

  • It was a long book, but good
  • Sad
  • Fascinating that it was narrated by Death
    • Death was given a person
    • In the book, it is alluded to that Death can be everywhere. But he is not omnipresent
  • Reading is power
  • Zukas gives good description, plot and character.

Good Quotes:
First Line: First the colors.
Last Line: I am haunted by humans.


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