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Book review: The Book Thief

Posted by joeabbott on May 15, 2016

I don’t read many novels but in the recent past I’ve picked a few good ones; The Book Thief, written by Makus Zusak and published in 2006 was no exception. It is exquisite.

Like many of the books I “read”, The Book Thief was my road companion as I listened to it on CD in my car during commutes; and like the other enjoyable books I’ve read, the story made me long for heading to work early, wish for rush hour traffic, and look for excuses to take a drive somewhere. Heck, even the trip of less than a mile to our local Home Depot would give me another 15-minutes of the story.image

And, as with a previous book on CD I’d written about (The Hare with Amber Eyes), the reader is superb. Allan Corduner’s vocal talents easily pronounce various foreign words (mostly German) with facility and a complete lack of self-consciousness; he brings the various characters, both male and female, old and young, to life with distinction; and he voices the character Death without drama and as a wholly realized character.

imageDeath, you say?

From the initial words, Death is your companion. He is the narrator and your guide through the story of a small period of time in a young girl’s life. While the story isn’t about Death himself, you do pick up a few words of description … some of what’s he’s not, and a few details about what he is. In this story, Death is not a skull-faced, scythe-bearing reaper, but is the ferryman who collects the souls for those who just died and carries those souls … somewhere. While the story is a bit unclear as to where the souls go, it’s very clear that Death is quite tired of his job; a job he does because someone must do it and it’s his purpose. And in the early 1940s, there are many souls in his care.

He’s also invisible to most people most of the time but he comments here and there about people being aware of him, people hearing his footsteps or smelling his breath. And while he almost never interacts with anything other than the souls he’s transporting, he does pick up a small book dropped by a young girl. It’s the titular book thief’s journal and it is the basis for the story that unfolds.

The Book Thief

I had noted in Suzanne’s (my wife’s) presence one time that I’d like to read The Book Thief and I thought no more about it. I can’t recall where I’d heard of it, what I knew about it, or why it had come up … perhaps I just liked the title … but about a week later she presented me the audio book and I was delighted. Admittedly, that delight was dulled a bit on the initial listening: the book was set in wartime Germany (I’m not a “war guy” and had only recently finished a prior book set, in part, in that time) and the initial paragraphs seemed gimmicky: Death as the narrator, continued references to “the color of the sky”, and the mixing of the words describing senses: the taste of a sound, the color of an emotion, etc.

By the end of the second chapter, however, that impression had faded and by the end of the book, I was actively wondering what the color of the sky would be on this occasion. And I wasn’t let down, as Death tells us: … the sky I saw was gray and glossy. A silver afternoon.

I’ve read a couple books in which I love the language; the author’s usage, the descriptions, the way the words come off the page; The Book Thief is one of those books. A book you read and know the author feels the same way about words. A short way into the story we’re with the protagonist who is confronted, for the first time in her life, with a library; she’d only known a book or two prior to that. It was transformative and beautifully described:

Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder, she smiled.

That such a room existed!

Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps. She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other. And she laughed. Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again.

How many books had she touched?

How many had she felt?

She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her pam to feel the small hurdle of each book. It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them.

Now that has to be penned by someone who loves the written word. It was the first time I had ever heard the bound edge of a book referred to as a “spinal cord”, rather than “spine” … it makes the books characters in the story, personifies them. And to distinguish the experience of touching the books versus feeling them … it describes how I think about some of the really great books I’ve read. It’s why, after listening to my library copy of The Book Thief, I returned and checked out the paper version.

Germany, sometime around WWII

imageThe story describes a very poor family who, in the late 1930s, adopt a young girl as means to additional income (state stipends or something) and for her to help around the home. It tells of a few years in her life: how she meets and makes new friends, how her adoptive parents hide a Jew during the Nazi pogrom in Germany, and how she comes to thieving books.

And while all of those details are wonderfully rendered, I think I liked the parts that describe and tell of Hans Huberman, her adoptive father, the best.

Hans embodies a gentle kindness that I had a hard time placing a finger defining until the narrator, Death, identified the word I was looking for: humane. Or maybe it was just “human”, but it wasn’t an exceptional quality, it was just that he cared, he had empathy … he was human. Perhaps this struck me as unique in a story about Nazi Germany, about poor people on subsistence living, about persecution; but it was one of my favorite parts and I enjoyed that it remained constant throughout the book.

While we get to know Liesel, the book thief, and it’s the story of her years with her new family and how she comes to love books and the written word, we see a lot of Hans, get to know Rudy, Liesel’s best friend, and even Max Vandenburg (the hidden Jew) and Rosa, Hans’ wife. And there are even enough hints and descriptions of Death himself scattered throughout the book  that we feel we know that character, too.

Yes, there are details about working during that period of time in German history as someone not affiliated with the Nazi party (there wasn’t all that much work … sorry, Hans), about parading Jewish prisoners through the streets, about book burnings, youth organizations, and any number of other details about living in wartime anywhere. But it was also rich with details about people; about the haves and the have-nots, about scared people in a fallout shelter, about the affect of losing children to the war.

I’m usually an action sorta guy: when I want to know what’s happening in a story, I typically don’t care about what someone’s thinking … I want to know what they’re doing. This story taught me my tastes aren’t necessarily that simplistic.

A well written tale

I knew I was hooked on the book when, sometime in the middle chapters, before Hans hands a scrap of bread to a Jewish prisoner and gains the attention of the Nazi party, that I exclaimed to Suzanne that I could happily enjoy the rest of the book “if nothing happened … they just made it through the War and went on living”. I didn’t need drama or intrigue to enjoy the story but, mostly, I realized I didn’t want trouble to come to the characters whom I was enjoying my time getting to know. They deserved the peace of boredom.

But, it isn’t that kind of story. Mostly.

The movie

Just as our local library rents CD books as well as the traditional paper versions, I found they also have a small selection of movies; of which, The Book Thief is one.

imageBecause The Book Thief focuses on thoughts and the qualities of people and not just action, it was a hard movie to make. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that it was a movie, and a recent one at that; it moved through the showings here without coming to my attention. But, on watching the it I have a strong recommendation: read the book. The movie isn’t bad, it’s just not as good as the book.

The characters don’t have the gaunt look … a look never described as such in the story, but one you expect nonetheless. The lead actress for Liesel is just to beautiful, but Rudy seemed to look about right. The mayor’s wife wasn’t sad enough, the parade of Jews didn’t have a stench of death about them. And Death himself wasn’t nearly as present … but, in that, the movie did fine.

It was also the changes they made to the story that caused me problems, too. Why didn’t we learn about Max’s fistfights with the Fuhrer? The backstory on the accordion or how Hans would earn money playing it some nights at a bar? Why didn’t they show the paintings in the basement … I really wanted to see them walking a tightrope to the sun.

One of the biggest changes was the books that were shown and those that weren’t. I get that one change (swapping a obscure title for a Jules Verne story) was prompted to be relevant to US audiences, but they never showed Max’s writings, they never introduced The Standover Man or The Word Shaker. Clever, imaginative things that really captivated me as I listened along.

Like holes in a fabric, the changes didn’t improve the story.

Again, I didn’t dislike the movie as much as I very much liked the book.


Your tastes will need to align pretty strongly with mine to come away from the book enjoying it as much as I did, but even if you’re a casual book-reader, this story and it’s telling will captivate and engage you as few others will. It’s novel in it’s telling and while a half-world and many decades distant from here, it’s intimate in ways hard to describe.

Go out and buy it, get it on loan from the library, and spend some time getting to know this offering from Markus Zusak; you’ll be very happy for the time you spend with his The Book Thief.


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