Liesel Meminger is a Book Thief, living with a foster family in Germany during World War Two. Torn from everything she's known, her foster father shows her the power of words as the two of them share late night reading sessions of The Grave Digger's Handbook. Her love of books ties her to others, including the mayor's wife and Max, the Jew the family hides in the basement.
My own words escape me as I try to recount the beauty of this book in a short review. Rarely have I read a book as moving, as profound, as this one. Narrated by Death, this story is one that crawls under your skin and reverberates your soul with its images of Nazi Germany, friendship, and loss. The images stirred through Death's telling are so vivid, so wonderful, so tragic. Zusak has a masterful command of language and I was astounded by the way his words brought Liesel and her world to life. We follow Liesel over the years as she learns the true meaning of family through her caring new Papa and her friendships with Max and Rudy, the boy next door who idolizes Jesse Owens.
Just a small list of images that will stay with me forever:
+Liesel reading to the neighbors sitting terrified in a basement waiting for the bombs to fall around them
+A snowball fight in a basement
+Mama arriving at school to "yell" at Liesel
+A boy with candlelit hair standing up to a Nazi Youth Leader
+Death gathering up the souls of children softly
+The story of a Word Shaker
+An accordian player accepting a cigarette as payment
There are not enough words within me to express the beauty of this book. It will move you to laughter and tears, often at the same time. This one is a keeper that I will revisit frequently in the future. It has changed my soul. Highly, highly, highly recommended.
I am not going to tell the plot of this book yet again, Amazon and some other reviewers have done it quite well...I will tell you that this is an astounding book, a beautiful book, and a book that I know I will read again and again......
I read a lot, two to three books a week, my family makes fun that I "love" so many that I read...but in the past few years there have only been a handful of books that when I finish reading the book I sit and try to think of who I can send a copy to, who can I share this wonderful experience with. A book that when I finish, I want to go back to the beginning and start over.
I am a little sorry it is listed as a young adult book, I feel that if the bookstores put it in the young adult section, so many people will be missing out on a wonderful experience. Yet it is important that younger readers, high school readers, read this book too. When I was growing up, I remember reading Diary of Anne Frank, and the feelings I had when I read it...and understanding the importance of everyone reading that book. Well, this book is that important, this book is a must read.
I am going to go back and read this author's other book, I don't know how it can measure up to this one, but if it is half as good, I am in for a treat.
on February 16, 2006
This is a story told by Death. An interesting point of view perhaps, but as it is set in Germany during World War II, perhaps it is entirely appropriate. It is also a story of a young girl, who in spite of having a life that no one would wish on anyone, still manages to have glimpses of pleasure through many small things, including the few books that she manages to acquire (or shall we say, steal).
It is interesting to see that it appears to be targeted to young adult readers - please don't be put off by this - it is very much an adult story about children who are doing their best to live a normal life in times of unspeakable horror. It would also be a good way to introduce more mature readers to the history of the times. But be warned, it is quite confrontational at times, and considering who the narrator is, very sad.
To add extra punch to the story, it appears that it is the true story of the author's grandmother. When you consider this, you realise how truly resilient we humans are, and how occasionally, and with a bit of luck, we can hold off death for a time.
on March 17, 2006
Very rarely a book comes out that steals my breath away. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak is a revelation. Narrated by Death, this story follows Leisel as she steals books in Nazi Germany while she and her best friend Rudy discover the power of words, language and friendship. Zusak's writing is mesmerizing; it's sarcastic, emotional, sophisticated and wondrous.
If you only read one book this year, read this one. Share it with your friends and family. I don't expect to read anything better this year, or next year either.
on December 21, 2006
I just finished this book last night and said to myself, "I should really read it again before I try to make comment" but, no, I want to share my reactions as spontaneously as possible.
There are hundreds of books in my house, but there is one bookshelf upstairs in a back bedroom which holds those special books: you know, the ones that have made such a profound impact on who you are and how you see the world that they are put aside in a place of honor. This will be one of those books for me.
This book is for adults, but it is also for teenagers. I think it is doing younger people a dis-service to think they could not relate to this book because the narrative style is challenging, the subject matter is doleful and/or because there are too many pages (oh, for heaven's sake!). Young people who like to read and like to think and like to feel will love this book as much as older folks like me. There is no need to dummy things down or sugarcoat them, especially when there is such a compelling story to be told.
One of the most powerful aspects of the book for me was the number of surprises. The book was not what I thought it would be and I was constantly astonished by:
1. the amazing stories that Max told and were re-created with tender illustrations inserted into the body of the book
2. the treatment of the German people as human beings, rather than "nasty Nazis" a la 1940's Hollywood. Although I like to see a "nasty Nazi" get his comeuppance as much as the next person, I found the lack of stereotypes in this book quite refreshing.
3. the imaginative use of language - it's just plain poetical at times. You get stopped short and have to read bits out loud because they are so darned beautiful and/or original.
4. the character Death, who is our guide and narrator. He has seen a lot in all the thousands of years of his existence, but he has never seen anything like the story of the book thief. And neither have I. And neither will you.
As some other reviewers have recommended, I will be sure to read other titles by this author.
THE BOOK THIEF is a beautiful and carefully worded story, following four years in the life of young Liesel Meminger, a poor German girl who finds herself separated from her six-year-old brother (who dies) and her mother and father (taken away by the Nazi's for being a communist), and fostered to Rosa and Hans Hubermann.
Arriving at the Hubermann's, nine-years-old and already burdened with great loss, Liesel forges a deep bond with her Papa, Hans - a man with a many-roomed heart - who sits with her at night when her nightmares force her awake with screams. It is during these nights that Hans teaches her to read, and they begin with the first book she ever "stole": The Grave-Diggers Handbook, a book that fell out of the pocket of a fourteen-year-old grave digger who dug the grave for her brother. Like a kitten who finds comfort at the teat of a sow after losing its mother, Liesel begins to find comfort in words.
The story is narrated by no less a personage than Death, although this Death is sans hooded-skull and scythe. Indeed, we learn little more about Death than he is not what we perceive him to be in our Halloween imitations, and very good at his job. Given the setting for this story, we are guaranteed of the chance to evaluate Death's job performance.
Zusak writes with a deft, poetic hand, his descriptions unconventional and mesmerizing. Rosa Hubermann is "a small wardrobe with a coat hung over it". A woman's mouth has teeth that elbow each other for room. A boy: "His tie is a pendulum, long dead in its clock." These images jump from the page and give us a clearer picture of what we're seeing than if Zusak had spent hours describing the tiniest detail of Rosa Hubermann's body.
Along the way, Liesel shares her interest in words, and in no place is that felt more potently than in her relationship with Max Vandenburg, a Jew who her parents hide in their basement. Max arrives nearly dead, and the much younger Liesel finds herself captivated by him. When the cold in the basement pushes Max to the brink of death, they move him to Liesel's room for (I believe) eight days, where Liesel brings him small mementos and reads to him while he fights for life (and once against Death itself!). In turn, Max writes for her - and these books-within-a-book are more touching and meaningful, more full of love and hope while not betraying the slightest hint of over-dramatization, than anything I've come across in years. Indeed, if this story had been only about Liesel's relationship with Max, it would have been an enormous success. It may also have been more widely read - I suspect that the length of the book and the immediacy present in Max's story but not as equally present in other sections, put some people off.
Before I read the book, I looked at the negative reviews (of which there are four). One review commented that the book felt like "work". Reading Hawthorne can be work, too, but I always feel the better for having read him.
on March 16, 2006
"A human doesn't have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both."
So muses the narrator of Markus Zusak's powerful and moving new novel, THE BOOK THIEF. As you might guess, this is no ordinary narrator. The contemplative first person guiding you through this book is Death, an at-once fitting and ironic vanguard for a tale that both celebrates the power of words and agonizes over the consequences of their use.
Set against the tragedy-stained canvas of World War II, Death tells the story of young Liesel Meminger (the eponymous book thief) growing up in Nazi Germany under the watchful eye of a staunch foster mother and kindly foster father who teaches her to read. She attends meetings of the BDM, a youth group aimed at indoctrinating young girls into Hitler's ideology. She plays soccer with the boys on her street, holding her own in any disputes that arise. And all the while, the dreams of her dead brother haunt and goad her into a fascination with reading and words that inevitably leads to her life of crime.
It is a meeting with Max Vandenburg, a 24-year-old Jewish man being hidden in Liesel's basement by her compassionate foster parents, that alters the course of Liesel's life. Max, too, is haunted by nightmares of a family he lost in the harrowing aftermath of Kristallnacht. Together, Max and Liesel discover a shared love of words that leads to a decisive understanding about the role words play in both bravery and cowardice. Each, in their own way, sets out to use this knowledge to shape the world around them.
While other writers have employed Death as a narrator, Zusak makes his own indelible mark on the technique in the dimensions he gives to the character. Death is simultaneously dispassionate about his work and the impact it can have while striving to understand humanity's resilience. Death boasts an omniscience of what will happen in life but also a naivety about what can happen in the human heart.
In the ultimate expression of his dichotomous theme, Zusak creates a touching love letter to books and writing, framed in arguably the most horrific period in human history. But his greatest triumph is delivering a reminder that no writer enters this world quietly. Writers are born of eruptions and detonations, and the truly exceptional ones, like Zusak, continue to channel these explosive energies to craft a truly remarkable book that will be admired for generations.
--- Reviewed by Brian Farrey [...]
on September 14, 2006
How rare the times that we read something entirely new and unique! It has been said that there are no new stories to tell, and I will not argue that. There really are only a few novel plots, although it is in our endless variations that we set ourselves apart as writers and word-artists, perhaps also as readers, in the manner and voice in which we tell the story. This is true for Markus Zusak in his creative storytelling of "The Book Thief."
The story is one of the oldest ones told: the narrator is mankind's friend/nemesis, Death, ancient as Time itself, and the scenes Death (not without compassion and not without wry humor) narrates for us are those of human suffering and endurance, an eventual overcoming of conflicts and obstacles, a story of love pitted against hate, of the victory of the best in all of us over the worst in any of us. Zusak's main characters are a 9-year old girl, Liesel Meminger, her companion and young partner in crime, Rudy, and a Jewish refugee named Max hiding in the basement of the house where she lives, herself something of a refugee in Nazi Germany during WWII. A wide range of secondary characters fill in all gaps and keep us reading with fascination, e.g. Liesel's adoptive family, especially her cruel and ascerbic foster mother, Rosa, who on occasion cracks to show a bit of humanity; the mayor's deeply depressed wife, who quietly allows Liesel to "steal" her books; Liesel's young comrades in thievery, and many more.
It is hard to pinpoint what it is, precisely, that makes Zusak's work so unique. But I knew it, felt it, instantly, page one, first line. Voice, yes. Style. A few experimental approaches in his storytelling, such as illustrations inserted in the novel with all errors present, just as Max wrote the text and drew the pictures for his young friend, Liesel. Death's narration is unique, too, with occasional bolded quotes that give just the right amount of distance. There are many such details that all come together to form a story worth reading, worth hearing, worth understanding. It is the story of Liesel, a spunky little book thief, who does far more than steal good books. Liesel steals hearts. In our smallest, we often find our greatest heroes.
on June 13, 2014
Usually, I read books quickly. Rare is the one that makes me slow down and savor the story. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one of those rarities.
This story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, in Nazi Germany during the Second World War is composed of compelling characters the reader lingers over and strong writing.
Liesel steals books. The first is at her brother’s funeral when she steals a gravedigger’s handbook. Later she steals from the bonfires used by the Nazis to burn books. She also steals from the personal library of the mayor and his wife. The author provides a delightful twist to this last plot line which I won’t spoil here. Her foster father uses these treasured books to teach her to read.
Liesel grows up physically, psychologically, and emotionally as she experiences courage, friendship, love, survival, death, and grief. And we follow her from her brother’s death and her placement in a foster home through fearing and then loving her foster parents. Through her eyes we see the brutal horror of Nazism.
And we see tender humanness as well. Her foster parents hide a Jew, and Liesel becomes a willing participant in keeping the secret, even from her best friend, Rudy.
We experience Liesel’s foster father, Hans, a gentle, mild-mannered, almost timid man, exhibit true courage and bravery. Not only does he hide a Jew, Max, but he intervenes to help one of the Jews who are periodically marched through the town at their way to the Dachau death camp. Hans is whipped for his efforts. Liesel later follows his example by giving bread to another group being force-marched through town.
When the danger gets too close, Max leaves. Throughout the remainder of the book, Liesel is searching for him in the groups of Jews paraded through the town. Searching for the man who, from his basement-hiding place, wrote and illustrated stories about her. Stories that will touch the reader as they touched her.
The magnificent story of Liesel is made even stronger by Zusak’s writing. The story is told by Death as a first person narrator. This allows great insight into all the characters, and pulls us into their hearts. Zusak spins words to create descriptions and images that stay with you and reveal the people and the world of Nazi Germany. He gives that world a life that’s missing from the history books.
I found myself re-reading passages. Not because I was lost or confused. But to cherish and enjoy the writing and to relive the moment of reading it.
A rare book indeed—one that will pierce the heart and stay with the reader long after other stories have faded away.
on April 19, 2006
Death touches us all, but Liesel Meminger manages to touch Death with her shining humanity and the words of her young life, penned in the basement of a poor home, where she survives a devastating bombing of her neighborhood in Nazi Germany. Death personified holds her luminous grief and happiness in his pocket in the form of a black book containing her young life's autobiography, found by Him, forgotten by her, in the time of her greatest shock and horror.
Her love of books and the words that make them alive starts with the most unlikely sort of origin: The Grave Digger's Handbook, found in the snow after her six-year-old brother's death. At almost ten, Liesel cannot read; but a new foster father finds The Book Thief's first volume and uses it to teach her in the darkest hours of night when her terrors awaken her. Her life with her new papa and her harsh "wardrobe" of a foster mama begins to take a comfortable shape, and she meets her neighbor, Rudy Steiner, one of the poor tailor's children, but the only one to paint himself black with coal to re-enact Jesse Owens' four-medal triumph at the 1936 Munich games. And the only one whose near-constant request for a kiss, Liesel only grants when it's far too late.
Books come to Liesel, and Liesel helps herself to books-from the remains of a burning pile on the Fuhrer's birthday; from the haunted and ghostly Mayor's wife, for whom Liesel's mama does the washing; and from Hans, the papa who parts with cigarette rations to buy her more to read. Not long after Liesel settles in Molching, on the outskirts of Munich, Hans Hubermann repays a WWI debt to a fallen comrade by taking the Jew's son Max into his basement. Liesel and Max share their struggles to survive and their nightmares: hers of a dead brother and his of family left to Hitler's mercies when he went into hiding. He sends her his regard in her favorite currency: words, stories made on pages of Mein Kampf painted white, his message the antithesis of those words first sowing and later reaping, so mercilessly reaping, hate in the land. Bound in growing love as well as the secrecy and desperation of wartime, the girl and man are separated when an act of kindness by Hans makes Max's hiding unsafe.
Richly drawn characters in every color of Death's sadly beautiful spectrum fill this novel, which could seem so bleak but somehow manages the same balance of a well-lived life at its end: when Death gathers our souls, we can embrace Him in celebration of life; when The Book Thief ends, its sadness is wholly tempered by the joy of reading it.
A personal note: As an English teacher and now a teacher-librarian in education for fourteen years, I have done a good bit of reading, usually at least a couple of books a week, and that's going back close to 25 years of serious reading, all told. This novel has shot to among my absolute favorites-the kind of book that ruins us for other books. In fact, I'm about to read it a second time now that I know where it's going.