Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers; First edition (March 14, 2006)
Language: English
Age Range: 12 and up
Grade Level: 7 and up
ISBN-10: 0375831002
ISBN-13: 978-0375831003
Amazon Review: 4.6 stars

Book blurb as seen on Amazon:

The extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture, Markus Zusak’s unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul.

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

There are very few books in this world that I consider a must-read for all people. Taste, reading abilities, time, all factor in to make some books just not suitable for some readers, while others will offer them what they are looking for. But The Book Thief is one such book. I am so in awe of the story, and how Zusak tells it, that I’m not even sure I should be reviewing. And my thoughts are so scattered and raw that I’m not even sure what I’m going to say.

Everyone knows stories of Nazi Germany, of concentration camps and swastikas, of death and denial. It’s not a subject I care to read, to be honest. Not because I want to deny it or bury my head in the sand, but more because I know and understand what happened during WWII and I don’t choose to revel in its misery. But Zusak draws a picture I have never really seen before, and now that I see it, I can’t look away from its beauty and its horror.

I’ve been meaning to read The Book Thief since I heard the movie was coming out. Sad that I wasn’t aware of such a literary gem until they wanted to make a motion picture of it, but there it is. Though a book snob myself, I’ve decided not to look down on people who rush to read a book before the movie comes out, when many “literary types” read that book “ages ago”. I frequent the library and am active online in many reading and writing circles, and still I hadn’t heard of it. Even still, I didn’t rush to read it because there were so many other things to read and get done. It wasn’t until I read agent after agent suggesting The Book Thief as a must-read for any writer who wanted to improve their craft that I decided it must be done.

For the record, I think The Book Thief is a must-read for anyone who lives and breathes in this world, not just writers. Learning from Zusak’s skill is just a secondary motivation, though it was at first my only motivation. I quickly saw what those agents were talking about, but was so lost in the gritty, glorious beauty of the words, that all the rest was unimportant. Where I usually devour a book to reach the story’s conclusion like a ravenous animal that hasn’t been fed, this truly was a book to be savored. Some passages I read more than once, not only to try to understand (because there were a few I just didn’t get) but also to enjoy them again and again. Some words string a bead necklace, but Zusak’s made pearls.

As usual I forgot to write down particular sentences that sang to me, and it would be impossible to find them now with out re-reading the whole thing. There were so many jewels of thought and lovely imagery that every sentence, every paragraph, felt like brush strokes against a canvas, creating what can not often be done with mere words alone. These dry brittle things we plop on paper and spill from our lips. How is it they are art from some and stones of ignorance from others?

There was one passage that was so evocative, so beautiful but so heart rending, that I had to read it aloud. My husband and my teen son listened willingly, and as the words poured forth from my lips, they seemed feeble in the light of day. Not the words, but my power to convey their depth. I felt inadequate to the task of sharing what was so moving to me with my husband and son. But Zusak transcends my abilities, and they were moved nonetheless. In case you’re wondering, Death’s Diary: The Parisians are the two pages I read aloud. There were many others as profound, but somehow those were the best for me. And here they are:

Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the color of Jews.

When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth.

I’ll never forget the first day in Auschwitz, the first time in Mauthausen. At the second place, as time wore on, I also picked them up from the bottom of the great cliff, when their escapes fell awfully awry. There were broken bodies and dead, sweet hearts. Still, it was better than the gas. Some of them I caught when they were only halfway down. Saved you, I’d think, holding their souls in midair as the rest of their being—their physical shells—plummeted to the earth. All of them were light, like the case of empty walnuts. Smoky sky in those places. The smell like a stove, but cold.

I shiver when I remember—as I try to de-realize it.
I blow warm into my hands, to heat them up.
But it’s hard to keep them warm when the souls still shiver.
I always say that name when I think of it.
Twice, I speak it.

I say his name in a futile attempt to understand. “But it’s not your job to understand.” That’s me who answers. God never says anything. You think you’re the only one he never answers? “Your job is to . . .” And I stop listening to me, because to put it bluntly, I tire me. When I start thinking like that, I become so exhausted, and I don’t have the luxury of indulging fatigue. I’m compelled to continue on, because although it’s not true for every person on earth, it’s true for the vast majority—that death waits for no man—and if he does, he doesn’t usually wait very long.

On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison on Polish soil. The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then slowing down, slowing down . . .

Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.

I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it. In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to gray to the color of rain. Even the clouds were trying to get away.

Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

5 stars