November Meetup: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Awhile back, I read and reviewed Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.  I wasn’t nearly as enthralled as the rest of the interwebs and book readers.  So when it was selected as The Liwits’ November book club read I was really excited to see how the ladies would respond.  In short – they pretty much agreed with me.

Obviously, Zusak’s novel is much beloved by many, but as someone who didn’t find it extremely compelling – and a tad bit on the gimmicky side – I was pleased to discuss my dislikes with fellow critics.  Not that we trashed the novel – not at all – and we had one lovely member who adored the book.  We all agreed that Zusak’s prose was mostly gorgeous and that dude can write, but I think Death as a narrator ultimately bothered some Litwits.

Katherine wasn’t thrilled with the ‘magical realism’ aspect of Death adding a sort of fictional haze over the realism of WWII.  I agreed, going so far as to argue against fictional WWII literature in general.  Others believed Death was humorous, added a certain levity, and was personified in a wholly humanistic way that didn’t bother the grittiness of the story at all.

We argued with America’s marketing of The Book Thief as young adult literature.  I’m fairly certain we all agreed that the book belongs among all ages equally.  We did think that teenagers would appreciate the novel.

Our discussion led us to ideas of what evil truly is and what it looks like, the differences between sociopathy and psychopathy, and even our recent political elections.  Everyone enjoyed the novel’s German perspective as we dived into a debate about how humans can turn a blind eye to such torture and how we believe it could happen again if we aren’t careful.  Unfortunately, many struggled with the constant reminders that everyone was going to die in the end which led to an anti-climatic ending that left no tears scattered across the final pages.  In converse, some appreciated this warning which allowed them to enjoy the journey without worry for the emotional turmoil at the end.

I encourage other groups to read this novel together.  While not everyone will love it and some might even find it difficult to get through, The Book Thief generates some amazing discussion which is, after all, the point of a book club!  I’m glad The Litwits read this story together and had such profound thoughts.  Can’t wait until next month when we read The Violets of March by Sarah Jio.  Hopefully, a bit of a lighter read for the Holiday season!

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Pretty much the entire blogosphere has already read this book as I’m extremely late to this party.  And most of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive – like 5 star, best-book-in-the-world positive.  So instead of focusing on the best aspects of the book, I’m choosing to go the opposite route and discussing the not-so-great bits that turned me off a great deal.

I want to preface this review with some clarifications.  On Goodreads, I rated this a 3 star read which is fairly accurate.  I liked it well enough to keep reading.  An admission that probably stains this review, perhaps unfairly:  I am not a fan of Holocaust fiction.  I just believe that the true stories, the non-fiction has so much more to offer.  A real-life experience about a  person who lived and breathed is always so much more affecting.  And, to be honest, there are so many true stories still left un-told that the fiction just seems misplaced and lazy.

Problem #1:  Death as the narrator.  I was really looking forward to this perspective and the experimentation with the narrative.  I expected a freshness to the story, but instead got a major distraction/intrusion.  I found myself really engrossed in the novel when I forgot Death was narrating, when the POV just seemed an anonymous third person.  When Death would announce himself again and again, I was completely thrown out of the story.  I also found his sarcasm jarring.  While understanding the need for comic relief in such a bleak novel, sarcasm shouldn’t be that humor’s vehicle.  Just bugged me personally.

Problem #2:  The random bits of text that are boldfaced and centered to help bring our attention (or beat us over the head) with one of the author’s genius bits.  Annoyed me to no end and yet again, took me out of the story every time I had to pause for one of these moments.  Just nothing smooth about the transition between flowing prose and gimmicky pop-up text.  Case-in-point – the last line is done in this manner.  It was a beautiful thought, but ruined by the beating it gave me in all its bold glory.  Zusak is telling, not showing.

Problem #3:  I’ve read many reviews that cite Zusak’s poetic, gorgeous prose.  So obviously I’m in an extreme minority here.  I do think Zusak is trying to be poetic and that sometimes it works – that he actually creates something profound and moving.  Other times (most other times) I find that he’s trying way too hard to sound poetic and comes off as rambling.  Half the time his phrasing doesn’t even make sense.  It reminds my of my own adolescent poetry where I would try so hard to sound genius.  Sometimes I amazed myself at what I wrote, but most of the time I ended up giggling at my cheesy, heavy-handed efforts.

Problem #4:  The manipulative ending.  Read reviews long enough and you’ll learn how the ending had everyone sobbing and vowing that this book had changed their life.  I call this huge emotional outburst and tragic ending manipulative.  It’s there not to teach us something, but to make us think we’ve read something super amazing because it made us cry.  I get angry at endings like this.  They feel so HOLLYWOOD.  I would have preferred far more subtlety which would have made much more sense with the story anyhow.  For the record:  No, I did not cry.  I was too annoyed to cry.

Those problems aside, I will say this:  I would highly recommend this to actual young adults.  Books like this hold a lot of value and merit for teenage readers because they act as stepping stones to greater literature and the desire to learn more about our world.  Obviously, this book destroys Twilight and the like as being a worthwhile read.  I also think all of my problems above will be things that teenagers really enjoy – the gimmicks and whatnot.  Shakes their reading experience up a bit and doesn’t bog them down in boring prose, but still offers up a serious story.

As for everyone else, also worth a read if for no other reason than to form your own opinion.  The story is sweet, moving, subtle and has a lot to offer its audiences of all ages.  Many characters you’ll find endearing and lovable.  I’m just not as enthralled as others and wanted to be a voice for those who also didn’t feel like this novel had changed their lives.  So definitely give it to the teenagers in your life and when you have a little down time, pick it up for yourself.