Apr 21, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Germany, 1939. Liesel is 9 years old when our story begins. Because her parents are communists, she and her brother are to go to a foster family to remain safe. On the way there, Liesel’s brother dies, and this is when Death sees her for the first time. It’s also when he’s buried that she steals her first book: The Gravedigger’s Handbook.

Liesel’s foster family leaves on Himmel Street, a poor area on the outskirts of Munich. Her foster mother a rough but loving woman. Her foster father is the person who teaches her how to read, who is always at her bedside when she wakes up from nightmares about her brother, who gives her the love she so desperately needs. Despite what is going on in the world at the time, Liesel’s life on Himmel Street is more unless peaceful until one day Max Vandenburg, a Jew in need of help, knocks on their door.

There is much, much more to this book's plot, but I will leave it at that. I know that I’m among the last to read it anyway. Valentina said that, despite its grim subject matter, this book was full of love, and now I know exactly what she meant. There’s as much love as there is tragedy in this story. A copy of Mein Kampf is turned into a picture book. A teddy bear is given to a dying American soldier. A snowman is built in a basement that hides a Jew. Pieces of bread are planted on the road do Dachau. A library window is left open so that a young girl may steal books. A young German boy painting himself black with charcoal to run, because of his admiration for Jesse Owens.

Acts of kindness – timid acts of kindness that are at the same time immensely daring. This is a story about what ordinary people were doing when the world around them was falling apart. Looking back now, we wonder why they didn’t do more. But misjudging their fear, overlooking the crushing consequences of something as simple as giving a starving man a piece of bread, is an easy thing to do. There was a lot of cruelty in those years, of course. But there were also small but precious acts of kindness.

There is something that Death, the narrator of the story, says at one point that is the exactly reason why I picked WW2 as my theme for the Themed Reading Challenge: because extreme circumstances like a war act like a magnifying glass. They show humans both at their very best and at their very worst.

The writing style of this book took me some time to get used to – the odd structure, the frequent interruptions, the short, anxious, urgent sentences. But I soon realized that they fit the story perfectly, and I found the book impossible to put down (except, of course, when I needed to dry my eyes, which was often enough).

The one thing about the book that didn’t impress me as much as it did other readers was the choice of Death as the narrator. By this I don’t mean that I was unimpressed. I just mean that, as an avid reader of Discworld and of the Sandman, I am used to a personification of Death looking at the ways of the world in a very human way. So this aspect of the book didn’t stand out as particularly original for me. But I do think it was a good choice – Markus Zusak’s version of Death is a great narrator whose presence allows the story to be told in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The effect, as I'm sure you all either known from experience or have been told, is an immensely moving one.

In addition to what I’ve said so far, The Book Thief is also a story about the power of words: to control, to wound, to heal, to save. It’s about the power of stories, both the ones we tell and the ones we are told. Liesel reads aloud from her stolen books during air raids. She reads to a mother whose sons are both dead, keeping her alive. For a while anyway. Until the inevitable end.

I’m going to have to quote Valentina again. She said that this book lived up to all the hype. She was right.

Other Opinions:
That's The Book
Books Love Me
B&B ex libris
Bending Bookshelf
Em's Bookshelf
She Reads Books
The Bluestocking Society
Lost in a Good Story
The Written Word
Reading Adventures
Not Enough Bookshelves

books i done read
Bottle of Shine
Valentina's Room
A Striped Armchair
An Adventure in Reading
Maw Books
Trish's Reading Nook
Confessions of a Book-a-holic

Library Queue
Book Nut
Out of the Blue
Becky's Book Reviews
It's All About Books
In the Louvre
The Hidden Side of a Leaf

Savvy Verse and Wit
Diary of an Eccentric
Blue Archipelago
Reading Room
My Two Blessings
Fresh Ink Books
Chain Reading
Stella Matutina
Sophisticated Dorkiness


  1. Oh goodness, I still haven't read this. But I will, I will. Soon. With this post I now can't wait to read it. But I have to wait, until I finish the ones on my bedside reading. Hahaha!

    I find this book cover lovelier than the more popular one with the domino tiles (which is the copy I have with me).

    A book that lives up to the hype! Really nice. Now you can go read the other Zusak book :)

  2. I'm in the middle of this book now and I'm enjoying it although it is a little heavy and I need to be in the right mood to read it.

  3. I'm another who hasn't read it yet. It's sitting in my book pile and I have it on at least one challenge list and I've actually really, really, really wanted to pick it up. But I keep putting it off, because I just keep hearing about the tears. I'm so happy to read your review and find that it is also a book full of love and goodness. Your review was so beautiful, Nymeth...so beautiful that it brought me to tears.

  4. What a beautiful review. I just love reading reviews that show what I feel but say it so much better. A wonderful book that I hope everybody reads.

  5. . . . You did a wonderful job of dangling the bait - "Liesel’s life on Himmel Street is more unless peaceful until one day Max Vandenburg, a Jew in need of help, knocks on their door."
    . . . and then setting the hook - "In addition to what I’ve said so far, The Book Thief is also a story about the power of words: to control, to wound, to heal, to save. It’s about the power of stories, both the ones we tell and the ones we are told."
    . . . This is another of those books that I've danced around the bookstore with, but I never took it home to read . . . until today - I went and got it on my lunch-break!

  6. you made me shiver all over again, while reading your review and remembering the story and its character. This is the kind of book that I wished I hadn't read yet, so I could have the pleasure to read it for the first time.

    I too found the writing strange to adjust at first, but once you get into it, it flows so well you never want to let it go.

    I knew you would love it and I'm happy to know that I was right:P

  7. What an absolutely beautiful review. I confess that I too have not read this yet, though the cover and title did jump out at me when it was first published. There is a glorious signed hardback on my shelf at home, and after that review I am really looking forward to reading it.

    Thank you!

  8. Great review, Nymeth!
    I've this book in my pile, just haven't got around to reading it yet... so many books, so little time!!! ;P

  9. yeah, yeah, yeah...I'm gonna read it :p It's been sitting in my pile for ages and I have no idea why I haven't read it yet. Your review makes me want to just go pick it up right now and if I didn't have so many other books that I wanted to get read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge I would. Amazing review :)

  10. I'll be starting this book later in the week. After your great review, I'm looking forward to it even more! World War II is one of my favorite topcs to read about, though it is usually so sad. I'll be looking forward to finding the "acts of kindness" within the book when I start reading.

  11. I'm yet another who hasn't read the book yet, but every time I go into my bookstore I see it and think,"yes, but not yet." because I know I'll cry, and I'm not ready yet! wonderful review as always, Nymeth!

  12. Great review, Nymeth! It's a difficult book to review because you truly find yourself not wanting to say too much. It simply wouldn't be right to ruin the amazing adventure for the next reader.

    Your review brought so much of it back that I find myself wanting to read it again. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Book Thief will always and forever be in my TBR pile.


  13. Sorry I have tried not to read much of your review as I am reading this soon and don't want to spoil too much of the story. I read enough to see you mostly liked it and it lives up to the hype which is the main thing! I know what you mean about Death and I will wait and see what I think of it in a couple of months.

  14. This was such a fantastic book. I was recently asked for a rec for a book club, and this was the first book to come to mind!

  15. This book has been calling to me for a long time. I'll have to bump it up much higher on the TBR list. Great review, thanks!

  16. Yayyy! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And you put into words, so beautifully, all of the things I loved about it.

    And, yes, my awesome Thesis Director used this one in a class, too. We read it as a part of a graduate course on adolescent lit.

  17. I was lucky to win an ARC of this from ReadingGroupGuides.com before it was released and I LOVED it. Like you said, the writing style was unique, but it really worked for this book and I came to love it. On the other hand, my dad couldn't even finish it (which is very unusual) so I'm not sure what that says!

    - Heather

  18. I loved this book. It is now one of my favorites.

    Thanks Cheryl

  19. i've been reading about this book online, but your review really makes me want to pick it up! Thanks for the nice review.

  20. Beautiful review, Nymeth. I'm glad this one didn't disappoint! Ohhh, Death as narrator in Discworld? Does that include The Color of Magic? I hope to read that one soon and I'm very excited!

  21. Lightheaded: Do, do, do! You'll love it! And yes, I much prefer this cover as well. I plan on reading his other book too, I've heard great things about it.

    Tricia: It is heavy, that's for sure. I look forward to reading your final thoughts on it.

    Debi: I understand, I postponed it for a while too for the same reason. But you know, it surprised me...it made me cry for different reasons than I expected. I mean, it is a tragic book in many ways, but there's some hope in there too, and so much warmth. Like Death says at the very start, it's a book about survivors.

    Maw Books: Yep, it's one everyone should read! And thank you :)

    Ken: I can't wait to see what you think of it!

    Valentina: Yes, you were right :P

    Mariel: The cover is very appealing, isn't it? A signed hardback! How cool is that! I hope you read it soon and I look forward to your review.

    Melody: I know what you mean!

    Chris: I have no doubt that you'll love this one. You should read it as soon as you're done with OuAT :P

    Laura: I'm very interesting in WW2 literature as well. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

    Susan: I really do know what you mean. But like I told Debi, it's not sad in the bleak way I imagined, although of course terrible things do happen.

    CJ: Thank you :) I was actually thinking, while I was reading it, that this has a certain something in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. And yes, this is a book I know I'll read again in the future!

    Rhinoa: I bet you'll love it! I look forward to your review.

    Marg: This really is a perfect choice - so much that could be discussed!

    Robin: I look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

    Andi: Another great pick! Those classes must have been great. I wish that my university professors were less unwilling to use any book that hasn't been published at least 20 years ago in their classes (and this even includes post-modern literature courses).

    Heather: Yes, it worked really well. Maybe your dad quit before he got into the writing style? I can't imagine putting this one down once the story really gets going!

    Cheryl: I can see why!

    Kim: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Trish: He's not a narrator (all Discworld books have a third person omniscient narrator), but he's a main character and has his own subseries. My favourite Discworld book is probably Reaper Man, in which he is "fired" from his job because he has become too close to humans. It's a wonderful book. Very touching too. I know that what you hear the most about Terry Pratchett is how funny he is, but (like Vonnegut for example) he can write extremely moving things too, often in the same sentence as hilarious things. Death only appears briefly in The Colour of Magic, I'm afraid. That book mostly pokes fun at all the conventions of fantasy, and it's very different from what Discworld was to become...which is why I always worry that people who start with it will get the wrong impression. I think I told you this before, but if you don't like that one, don't be discouraged! I only truly got into Discworld with Mort, the first of the Death books.

  22. I'm so glad you liked this one!! I read it last year, and thought it was one of the best books I've ever read. I think I cried non-stop for the last 50 pages!! I LOVE this book!

  23. nymeth, I'm afraid that you're wrong -- you're not the last person to read this book because I STILL haven't read it. I've had it on my shelves since it came out, and I want to read it, but for one reason or another I just haven't, yet. But, thanks for the great review. Maybe, I'll pick it up soon.

  24. Stephanie: I can see why! I remember your glowing review of I am the Messenger too...I really want to read that one as well.

    Lisa: I look forward to your review of it. I don't think you'll be disappointed!

  25. Well, I'm very curious about the series and I think I'm going to start The Color of Magic tomorrow. I'm kind of glad that I'm going into the book without too many preconceived notions of what it is or about. I hadn't heard of Terry Pratchett until reading about him on your blog. I'm going to the bookstore tomorrow (*fingers crossed anyway*), so I'll have to look at see if there are any other books of his. Do the books need to be read in sequential order?

  26. I still haven't managed to read this one, although it's definitely something that interests me. I've always been drawn to that time period and have read a lot of other books, both fiction and nonfiction surrounding it. I am glad to hear that you liked this one, Nymeth. Thanks for the wonderful review!

  27. Trish: The books are all stand-alone with the exception, I'm afraid, of The Colour of Magic. It ends with a cliff-hanger and the story is only fully concluded in The Light Fantastic. But from then on, the stories are independent and you don't really need to read them in order. There are subseries with the same characters within the series, though, and people generally like to at least read those in order because sometimes the books refer to past events. Here's a link you'll find useful: Discworld Reading Order Guide. My favourites are the Death Novels, followed by the Witches Novels.

    Literary Feline: I really think you'll love this one. I hope you get to it in the near future because I can't wait to read your thoughts!

  28. Alright--well I'm a fourth of the way through and really enjoying it! I think my interest really was piqued when Twoflower was talking about Inn-sewer-ants--which is my profession. I was laughing out loud and read the bits to hubby (whose family is in insurance). I think, though, that I'm losing parts of the satire by not knowing a lot about fantasy. Sure, I've read fantasy and seen the movies, but I feel like I'm only scratching the surface.

    I'll have to keep my eye open for The Light Fantastic. And thanks for the website!

  29. I loved this book! Just finished reading it and I think the story will stay with me for quite a while. It's just unforgettable and it's also one of the books that manage to make me cry and block up my nose. :D

    I'm glad I read it and I can't wait to check out Zusak's other book, the Messenger book. My review of TBT is over here.

    Oh, great review by the way!

  30. It hardly seems that you need any more links to reviews of this book. lol But as part of my Weekly Geeks assignment I leave you mine:


    Thank you.

  31. Great review! I agree with you about the book being a tear-jerker...it was the first book I have read in awhile that made me cry. The Book Thief was on my wish list for several years and I finally got to read it this year in 2010. I'm sure I was one of the last to read it too, haha!

    Here's the link to my own review for it: http://www.dreamworldbooks.com/2010/02/book-thief-by-markus-zusak.html


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