The Book Thief – A Review

I love books. I can’t remember what came first: the love of books, or the desire to write. Using logic to figure this out doesn’t help when it comes to me. I used to write in my early teens, then I had another attempt in my mid 20s; nothing in between and nothing after. I’ve never really stopped reading though. Except for the past 13 months… 2014 seems to be the year when everything happens all at once: here I am writing (fairly) frequent blog entries, AND I finished a book in about  couple of weeks (that used to be my pre-natal reading speed): The Book Thief

The Book Thief

“It’s a small story really, about, among other things:

* A girl

* Some words

* An accordionist

* Some fanatical Germans

* A Jewish fist fighter

* And quite a lot of thievery” 

I can’t believe this book has been out since 2006. Thanks to the book club I am part of, I finally got to hear about and read it. I was completely engrossed from the first chapter. Those first couple of pages intrigued me to the extent that I was annoyed – I could not understand a iota of what Death was talking about. Not knowing those were Death’s words contributed to the confusion. Once the setting was revealed and I was introduced to the characters, I was sold.

Death makes a helluva narrator – Markus did a great job humanizing a concept that most of us are filled with dread just thinking about. Otherwise who would have wanted to listen to the storytelling of the grim reaper with “sickle or scythe” in hand? “It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation. ” Great sense of humor, too, don’t you think?

“First the colors.

Then the humans.

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, I try.”

In an attempt to cope with job dissatisfaction, Death watches the sky each time it comes to collect a soul. A much needed distraction to keep it sane. The hardest part of Death’s job is witnessing the survivors. Leslie Meminger is a “perpetual survivor – an expert at being left behind”, and this is her story.

Set in Nazi Germany, during World War II, the book follows the life of a kind and intelligent nine year old girl who, as a result of circumstances, becomes a book thief. In January 1939, Paula Meminger gives her daughter, Liesel, for adoption to Rosa and Hans Hubermann. Rosa reminds me a lot of my grandmother (it must be the German blood); she is the grouchy kind, constantly criticizing and verbally abusing those around her. Behind this facade however, Rosa is a kind-hearted, generous woman as she eventually demonstrates (still waiting on my grandma’s changeover). Hans Hubermann is Papa; the man Liesel loves with all her heart. He is the epitome of kindness and humility, proving his strength of character time and again (openly opposing the Nazis, giving bread to Jews on their way to detention camps, hiding a Jew). Although not very schooled himself, he is the one who teaches Liesel to read and write, the catalyst of her love for reading, and subsequently her stealing of books to quench her thirst of reading.

For me it was the realistic setting (at times I would forget this was not a memoir), the historical facts and depiction, and the simple flow of the book that made me love it. It was such an easy reading; despite sharing endings ahead of time, Death had its way of keeping you intrigued and curious about what it would reveal next. The writing is beautiful, at times it felt like I was reading free verse poetry – here are a few of my favorite metaphors:

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.

She was the book thief without the words.

Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

“Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

“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. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.”

“I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skills is their capacity to escalate.”

It takes a lot of talent to depict life under Nazi rule as seen through Death’s eyes and not make it a sad, depressing story. Surprisingly, Death’s account of the events is far from morbid; its vivid description of events and characters enveloped in a humorous tint is heartwarming and uplifting. The tragedy of war is present, hard to avoid it when bombs are dropped around you, but your attention is drawn to characters’ hearts and their strength to plow through difficult times; your heart is touched by the innocence of teenage love, Liesel and Rudy’s immediate passion, and is racing along with Liesel’s during her thieving pursuits.

All in all, a beautifully-written book. To use the words of a couple of real book critiques: “brilliant” (the New York Times), “absorbing and searing” (The Washington Post).

I’ll end with one quote that I adopted into my vocabulary:

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

and one that I find inspiring:

“I like that every page in every book can have a gem on it. It’s probably what I love most about writing–that words can be used in a way that’s like a child playing in a sandpit, rearranging things, swapping them around. They’re the best moments in a day of writing — when an image appears that you didn’t know would be there when you started work in the morning.”

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