Book Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

What is it about books that makes them so tantalizing?

What is it about them that begs to be picked up, to be enjoyed, to be READ?

I’m not quite sure what it is…but it is a powerful force.

It’s the force that made young Liesel Meminger perform her first act of thievery: picking up a book lying half hidden in the snow by her even younger brother’s grave.

What follows in The Book Thief is a masterful tale of the power of written words snatched from snowy seclusion, from a censor’s fire, from a kindly cruel neighbor’s library.

The illiterate Liesel is taught to read by her near-illiterate foster father. Liesel reads to the Jew her foster parents are hiding in their cellar. And both the Jew and Liesel write as death looks on.

For this story is set within Nazi Germany, while the Grim Reaper is busy across the whole of Europe.

The Book Thief is a fascinating story, not the least because it’s narrated by the Grim Reaper himself.

An excerpt from the beginning of the book:

“As I’ve been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I’ve been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me?….The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision–to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors.

Still, it’s possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?

Which brings me to my next point.

It’s the leftover humans.

The survivors….

Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors–an expert at being left behind.

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

  • A girl
  • Some words
  • An accordianist
  • Some fanatical Germans
  • A Jewish fist fighter
  • And quite a lot of thievery

I saw the book thief three times.

The Reaper tells the story of all his dealing with Leisel–the Book Thief, as he calls her–from her first act of thievery to her last breath. Along the way, he tells a story of men and women and little girls and boys who risked much and gained much in silent resistance to the Reich.

I found it wonderful.

Rating: 5 stars
Category:Historical fiction
Synopsis:The Grim Reaper tells the tale of a young girl inside Nazi Germany who finds herself enamored with books–and willing to go to great lengths to obtain them.
Recommendation: I greatly enjoyed this book–although it took a bit to get accustomed to the Reaper’s unique style

Interesting note about this book–This was my first, and last, adult fiction book with last name “Z”. Just so happens, all the other books my library owns by authors with last names starting in Z are either sci-fi or mysteries–books I determined from the outset that I wouldn’t include in my personal challenge. So there you have it :-)

Book Review: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Fable” by John Boyne

View my disclosure statement for more information on how I choose books to review.

Author John Boyne describes his work in an author’s note:

“Throughout the writing and rewriting of the novel, I believed that the only respectful way for me to deal with this subject was through the eyes of a child, and particularly through the eyes of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him.”

Naive is right. Nine year old Bruno is completely lost in 1940s Germany. Despite his father being a commandant in the Nazi army, he has no idea what is going on around him. He doesn’t seem to know that the country is at war. He doesn’t understand who Hitler is–and calls him the “Fury” (as if a German child wouldn’t be able to pronounce “Fuhrer”.) When his family is moved to Auschwitz, where his father is to command the concentration camp, he mispronounces this name too, calling it “Out With”. He sees the people walking about inside the camp wearing their identical garb and thinks that they’re wearing striped pajamas.

I had a hard time getting through Bruno’s stupidness to truly appreciate this book. The story of the boy, discontented about his move from the city to this barren countryside until he meets and befriends another boy through the tall fence that surrounds Auschwitz, is touching. The writing style, while written at a very low reading level, is engaging. The narrator describes young Bruno’s thoughts in a unique voice:

“Then the door of the office closed and Bruno couldn’t hear any more so he thought it would be a good idea if he went back to his room and took over the packing from Maria, because otherwise she might pull all his belongings out of the wardrobe without any care or consideration, even the things he’d hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.”

Indeed, if it weren’t for Bruno’s complete lack of sense, I might have really enjoyed this book.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is billed as juvenile fiction, but is really only appropriate for those who already have a basic understanding of Holocaust history. Bruno is completely in the dark about what is going on, and the narrator never explains it to him or to the reader. The assumption is that the reader will recognize “Fury” as the “Fuhrer” and identify that character as Adolf Hitler. The reader must recognize “Out With” as “Auschwitz” and understand that Auschwitz is a concentration camp. He must recognize, even if Bruno does not, the meaning of the cry “Heil Hitler” and the swastikas on the soldier’s armbands and the stars of David on the Jews’ armbands. From beginning to end, this book will cast a child who is not familiar with Auschwitz in advance into deep confusion.

As such, despite its incredibly simple reading level, this book is really more suitable for a teen or adult than for a child.

b>Rating:3 Stars
Category: Juvenile Fiction
Synopsis: Nine-year-old Bruno’s family moves from Berlin to Auschwitz, where Bruno’s father commands the concentration camp. Bruno is lonely for his friends and his old home until he secretly makes friends with a boy across the fence.
Recommendation: Lots of people read this and liked it. I read it and didn’t hate it. It’s a pretty quick read–so you might as well pick it up–but I’m not giving it rave reviews like so many others have.