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The Book Thief

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This was a reading group read, otherwise I might not have picked it up and then might not have read it through.

 

There are two covers to this book, one for young people and one for adults. I have the adult cover. The cover is printed to look aged, ill used and dirty and had a sketch of a young girl and a cloak covered skeleton dancing. The girl is Liesel and the skeleton is Death. Death is the narrator of this story and Liesel is the main character

 

As you open the book, inside the dustcover, it says 'Here is a small fact' then on the next line 'You are going to Die'. I have to admit being stunned if not shocked that these should be the first words of a book aimed at young people (as well as adults).

 

A simple enough story (I tried to put in a spoiler here, but I'm afraid the instructions I wrote down do not seem to work), yet because Death is the narrator it has a strangeness about it. This is emphasised by the layout of the book. Just as the dustcover gives you a 'small fact', the reader is fed these facts throughout the book in bold type with headings and narrative or lists. These facts are inserted in the narrative at irregular intervals and can relate to a character or a situation. They were initially very disconcerning. The novel is divided into ten Books. At the beginning of each Book each chapter heading within that book is listed. The chapter headings are far more informative than just a heading.

 

Death does not just tell Liesel's story either. He interrupts the prose to give his view of the War too. This Death has emotions, which he expresses often. And he sometimes jumps ahead and tells the reader what is going to happen.

 

Once I had got used to the layout of the book I have to admit I found it very readable and engaging. I am now looking forward to the reading group discussion. What I'm not sure about is how children would react to this book.

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I felt let down by this book. It was one of my 'asks' for Christmas and after reading a few disappointing chapters I turned to the flyleaf and noticed the ISBN ref was 'juvenile fiction' and thought, yep, that's one of the reasons why it's not working for me. I've read a lot of factual material about the Holocaust, and great books like Primo Levi's 'If This Is a Man' and wasn't in the mood for this slight tale. I'll be interested Barblue in what the other members of your group think.

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Thanks meg, for some reason I used the \ instead of the / key. Mind you it was quite late when I wrote it. But I will try it in the near future.

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There has been a lot about The Book Thief around recently and I came to it expecting great things. I found the first 140 pages easy to read and was really pleased to have got hold of, and then I got stuck (about the time of the chapter with Max's story).

 

It took me another week of persevering with the next 150 pages or so before I got back into it, and was amazed to find myself sobbing at the end!

 

It is a good book, and worth sticking with - I found it interesting to compare with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which I re-read recently for book club.

 

The Book Thief is very good at showing you the German humanity angle of the second world war - for some reason it had never occured to me that "Jerry" would be rationed, or hiding in bomb shelters! I think it will be good for teens and naive adults such as my self to show there are 2 sides to every war and it's not all "Hooray" for one side and "boo" for the others as it seems to be taught in school history!

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Last night I discussed The Book Thief at my reading group. The unanimous view seemd to be that it was an interesting and fulfilling read on many levels; everybody liked the book. The story itself is seemingly simple, but is interwoven with so many levels of meaning that in fact it stimulated a great deal of discussion.

 

One of the themes discussed was sentence structure. Several felt that Zusak's sentences were so descriptive and oftimes poetic such as (and I don't think this will spoil the story) 'There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.' or 'Papa, his silver eyes swollen in their tiredness and his face awash with whiskers, shut the book and expected the leftovers of his sleep. He didn't get them.'

 

Teachers in the group said that at a certain level in secondary education sentence structure is specifically a major part of the curriculum and that this book could be used as a good example of that craft. On a personal level we just enjoyed a few examples that brought us pleasure in our reading.

 

Colour is another theme in the book, especially on personal description. Papa's eyes are always referred to as silver, Rudy's hair is described many times as, 'lemon, lamplit', skin colours proliferate, as do Liesel's imaginative descriptions of the sky. All of which brings the book to life.

 

The description of Liesel's first visit to the library touched everybody. The way she runs her fingers along the spines of the books was like a lovers caress and all booklovers know that feeling. Zusak describes it beautifully. 'How many books had she touched? How many had she felt?' And that word in italics stands out as it should and makes the reader 'feel' the whole situation too.

 

On the question of Death being the narrator there was much discussion. I was personally disturbed that a child should read this. The discussion was led by the person at Borders who is responsible for the Children's Section of the store. She said she might not encourage a ten year old to read it, but would make that judgement after speaking with a child and/or parent if one were present. By the age of thirteen, it was felt by the group generally, most children could handle the content of this book.

 

Much praise was laid at Zusak's door in setting out what life was like for the German people during WW2 in a way that was accesible for young teenagers who were possibly studying this in history. One teacher said she would use this book in conjunction with the history department as a parallel educational tool.

 

I found this discussion very interesting. At the end I was persuaded that perhaps my fears were unjustified. I also feel that after discussing the book in more detail it was indeed a good read. For me the story romped along at quite a pace. Having discussed the minutiae of the construction, I am now tempted to re-read it to enjoy all the other aspects discussed.

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On the question of Death being the narrator there was much discussion. I was personally disturbed that a child should read this. The discussion was led by the person at Borders who is responsible for the Children's Section of the store. She said she might not encourage a ten year old to read it, but would make that judgement after speaking with a child and/or parent if one were present. By the age of thirteen, it was felt by the group generally, most children could handle the content of this book.

I'd agree with the group about the age range. I wouldn't recommend it to lower secondary level, but anyone 14-15 would be about right. We have it in our "Teenage" collection at work (used to be called 14-19), which is not borrowable by anyone under 11.

 

Quite a discussion there, Barblue - I found it fascinating to read through. It has certainly added to my reading of the book as well.

 

I loved the colour aspect of the book - the way that Death remembers / thinks in colour was fascinating. I thought of Schindler's List when he describes first meeting Liesel in red. I wonder if that was intentionally set up on the part of Zusak?

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Oh I so want this book now but I'm supposed to be being good!

 

Katrina - you must get it in hardback because it will probably be a book you want to keep forever. And it is a beautiful book. When you look at the price on Amazon it's cheaper than some paperbacks. ;)

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I’ve read some of the comments who said that they were let down by this book, How? I personally thought that this book was amazing. I wasn’t expecting it to be very good, maybe if you do in expecting nothing you get a good surprise.

 

I thought that they layers to this book, and the view of the second world war was amazing.

 

I also like the phrasing- there is one part not wanting to spoil anything, but it is written that

 

 

“She had seen her brother die with one eye open, on still in a dream. She has said good bye to her mother and imagined her lonely wait for a train home to oblivion….she had watched a bomber pilot die in a metal case. She has seen a Jewish man who had twice given her the most beautiful pages of her life marched of to a concentration camp. And at the centre of it all, she saw the fuhuir, shouting his words and passing them around. These images were the world and it stewed in her. In brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brim of their bellies with paragraphs and words. You bastard she thought, you lovely bastards, don’t make me happy, please don’t fill me up and let me think that something good ca come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before you very eyes, eroding me? I don’t want to hope for anything anymore. I don’t want to pray that they maybe alive and safe. Because the world doesn’t deserve them.”

 

 

 

I’m sorry that was so long, but those words just basically summed up how powerful I thought the book was, well worth the read because sometimes a books makes you thing, and feel.

Starlock

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Welcome to BGO, starlock.

I hope you enjoy reading and contributing to the various forums.

Do pop up to the Central Library (at the top of the forum-index), and post a little about yourself in the

Please Introduce Yourself thread, then we can welcome you properly.

 

 

(I have fixed the code so that the spoiler works in your post here)

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I’ve read some of the comments who said that they were let down by this book, How? I personally thought that this book was amazing. I wasn’t expecting it to be very good, maybe if you do in expecting nothing you get a good surprise.

 

 

 

Well, that's books for you and what makes groups like this so interesting.

 

(PS: I still don't know what all the fuss is about, but there again I'm not a young adult!)

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I am about 60 pages into this book and am absolutely loving it so far - I think Zusak's writing style is excellent. I will post my thoughts here when I finish reading it.

 

In fact I shall sign off very soon and go and curl up with it! :)

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Guest Colyngbourne

This is my review of The Book Thief from elsewhere :

 

I read this in its entirety last night, because there is no way I could have desired to pick it up a further night. At 570 pages or so, there was very little that lifted it above what I shall generously call 'tedious'. For a younger reader (10 or 12) it is too long; for an older reader 13-14, it is perhaps more stylistically attractive but its knowing narration by Death is pretty much just so much window-dressing, and the drama of the story alone does not sustain.

 

I read so much over-egged descriptive style (all that colour, and over-arty expressionism "somewhere inside her were the souls of words. They climbed out and stood beside her..the words were given across from the girl to the Jew. They climbed onto him.") and actually not very much about an actual 'book thief':

one book Liesel picks up at her brother's funeral; another, unburnt, from a celebratory pyre for Hitler's birthday; two are given as presents by her foster-parents; two are created for her by the Jewish Max, hidden in the family cellar; the remainder are offered to her by the Mayor's wife, who leaves the window to her private library open for Liesel to clamber in and take her pick.

 

 

This sustaining power of words and reading that the book promotes is a worthy idea, of course, but it is never more than a sideline in the story, in amongst the games of football,

the ill and ailing Max who must be kept a secret at all costs, and the apple-scromping. It's as though no-one else in the neighbourhood has thought of the calming and distancing powers of reading aloud or to oneself, and Liesel is even given a mythic name by Max - the Word Shaker - for her book-reading, which is not really out of the ordinary. And perhaps that was the point - she was encouraged by the adults in something that would help her through, that was no great achievement in itself - but unfortunately the book, narrated by Death, makes of Liesel a bigger figure than I see her. Death seems mightily impressed by her, as if there were not a hundred or thousand other girls and boys doing exactly the same thing - losing their parents, lacking for food (though Liesel never starves).

 

 

Far more interesting is Rudy, her best friend, who desires to emulate Jesse Owens and also to kiss Liesel.

Damn her that she never grants him that, after all he does for her. His random death at the end of the book - when the entire street is bombed to smithereens - recalls the death of Zach Wrench in Goodnight Mister Tom; and there are other similarities too - Liesel's re-homing, her nightmares and bedwetting and being taught to read by the father-figure, along with suffering being put in the 'baby class' at school.

 

 

I was disappointed that this book didn't do more.

Why was Liesel so special that Death picked up her written account of her life - The Book Thief - and kept it, and re-read it for heaven's sake, until her old age when he returned it to her personally in a scene that jarred with his other appearances in the story.

For what it contains, the story was overlong and for any 13/14 yr old I would recommend The Diary of Anne Frank instead. Of the children's books I've recently read regarding WW2 - Goodnight Mister Tom, Hitler's Canary, I am David, Tamar, The Silver Donkey, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit - this adds a certain extra presence: the life of a German street, of a boy who unwillingly attends Hitler Youth training, a man who is threatened because of his acts of kindness towards Jews, a Mayor's wife traumatised by the loss of a son in a previous war, a man marched to a concentration camp. But I could not care about Liesel, nor Death "cradling souls", nor all the puffed-up descriptions and asides to camera. When the means to tell the story becomes an end in itself, you should be reaching for The Diary of Anne Frank and putting The Book Thief back on the bottom shelf.

 

** 1/2 stars

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Guest John Self

I haven't read this book but have seen it all around the bookstores and have read this thread with interest.

 

On the point about Death narrating the book and the line inside the dustjacket saying "you are going to die," I don't think this is a problem for children. Children do know we're all going to die, and the notion -because it's still an academic point at that age - in fact doesn't fill them with the dread that it does for some of us when we're older... Or as Martin Amis put it, once you hit a certain age, "it's a full time job looking the other way." Plus of course Terry Pratchett has made Death a prominent character in his books with no reported casualties.

 

Someone on the Lolita thread said that it was written with a "flowery" style, which I disagreed with. Flowery to me means overdone and excessively wordy. The thought came up as I read this thread as it summed up exactly what I thought of the quotes given here, like these:

 

'There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.' or 'Papa, his silver eyes swollen in their tiredness and his face awash with whiskers, shut the book and expected the leftovers of his sleep. He didn't get them.'

 

That to me is just bad writing, excessively metaphorical and although less likely to be annoying to children than to adults, even then it's setting a bad example. The spoilered line that starlock quoted seems sickeningly sentimental to me. I'm a great believer in rich prose with original turns of phrase - see my reviews of James Salter's Light Years and Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown - but it's easily misjudged I think, and if in doubt, less is more.

 

Which just goes to show that tastes differ. And that I'll be waiting for the movie...

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Boy- there sure are some stellar reviews here. Nice work.

 

I guess I essentially would agree with Colyngbourne about it's faults. It still managed to move me quite a lot in the end (ok- sobbing) , but I did feel slightly manipulated into doing so. It definitely has a 'gimmick' in the narrator of Death and while an interesting idea, it never really is worth it. He never fleshes Death out in any way and I just ended up with a sense that he was a bit of a down-trodden baggage porter. He certainly never has any menace in the traditional sense of Death (I suppose that's for the kiddies). And he never really gets to grips with the describing or even properly hinting at how Death was dealing with what would have been considered a very heavy work load during that time.

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Thank you for adding your review, Colyngbourne. Like Volvican, it said perfectly everything that I would have liked to have said! Thanks as well to John Self. It's great to see so much activity down here in the CYA forum!

 

Of the children's books I've recently read regarding WW2 - Goodnight Mister Tom, Hitler's Canary, I am David, Tamar, The Silver Donkey, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit - this adds a certain extra presence: the life of a German street, of a boy who unwillingly attends Hitler Youth training, a man who is threatened because of his acts of kindness towards Jews, a Mayor's wife traumatised by the loss of a son in a previous war, a man marched to a concentration camp. But I could not care about Liesel, nor Death "cradling souls", nor all the puffed-up descriptions and asides to camera. When the means to tell the story becomes an end in itself, you should be reaching for The Diary of Anne Frank and putting The Book Thief back on the bottom shelf.

I've not been around for a few days, so you might have already replied to them, but we have threads on Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Tamar, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on The Silver Donkey as it's on my list of to read's!

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Hey guys,

I'm about 50 pages into this book, it's rather awkward to hold :mad: but other than that I have found so far that i am enjoying it. I was shocked slightly at the bad language (although saying this even Skellig features bad language and I let my 11 year olds read that). I think that this is definately for older children, 13+ at least. Going home tonight to read another chunk and I will feedback when I have finished.

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What a mixed set of reviews this book is attracting! I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and absolutely loved it, probably my favourite book so far this year. I thought it was absolutely stunning, and cried my heart out in parts!

 

I have not had time to post much on BGO in last couple of weeks but I hope to catch up this coming weekend and will pull my thoughts together to post a proper comment about this book then so, looking forward to joining in the debate!

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Finished this book last week just ihn time for the arrival of HP.

This is one of a number of childrens novels I've read recently that have focused around the holocaust. Is this the best? No, I wouldn't say that, but I would ceetainly say that this book provided an interesting focus on the situation.

This book made the war for German children come alive in a way that I haven't really read before (obviousy The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does a similar thing but that is just limited to one small child and the camps, this novel covers elements of everyday life). I really liked the fact that death was the narrator, especially when he talks about the weight and strain of removing so many bodies.

I wasn't so sure on the focus on colours or the little added in parts but on the whole I found it a good read.

Anyone who liked this should read Private Peaceful by Morpago

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Well, as I said in my previous post, I absolutely loved this book! I loved the totally different approach to what is such a serious subject. I liked Death and his little asides, and thought it was a really novel way of delivering the story.

 

I thought that the factual elements that were brought into the novel such as the book burning; the control of the Nazi Party over all elements of everyday life; the treatment of Jews and the descriptions of the bombing raids were very good, and accurate.

 

Accuracy was something I really struggled with when I read 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas' (and I have had a good leaf through it again today to make sure I did not miss something).

From the opening chapter I really did question Bruno's naivety because from everything I have read about the Holocaust, including lots of personal testimony, a boy of Bruno's age, the son of a very high ranking Nazi, would without any doubt have known exactly who the Fuhrer was and, though he may well have been too young to understand fully the enormity of what a Concentration Camp was at the time, he would have understood (to put it in the simplest - child-like terms) that Jewish people were not liked by Nazis and that they were slowly disappearing from everyday life. In fact, I am pretty sure that there was a group for the youngest children of Party members that came before the Hitler Youth. Young children were taught Nazi nursery rhymes in school - Bruno would have known who the Fuhrer was!

 

 

In the Book Thief the issue of people reporting family members or friends or neighbours by Party members for anything deemed un-Nazi is dealt with really well. The book does have a fairy-tale quality, but fairy tales have always really been about horrific things.

 

If you want realism, you definitely need to recommend books like 'The Diary of Anne Frank', 'Hitler's Canary' or 'Tamar' - all fabulous books, but I will definitely be recommending this book to older readers as a means of letting them find out just how insidious the Nazi Party was, how controlling and ruthless.

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Wow, after that testimony, this has to go on the TBR mountain! I found "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" exasperating for the very reasons you describe and consequently rather patronising to its intended youthful audience.

 

Maybe its because I'm Jewish, where a "we must never forget" approach is understandably emphasised from very early on in religious education, but I'm sure I was aware of the Holocaust and the Nazis from an early age, even if I couldn't comprehend the full extent of its atrocity. I still can't, really.

 

I also find the idea of Death as a narrator an intriguing one, although whether I'll be able to get beyond my Discworld influenced conception of him as a literary character I don't know.

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Hi there,

 

What a great recommendation, Lesley MP.

 

"The Book Thief" is one of my top 10 books of all time. I was privileged recently to go to a writers' festival where Markus Zusak was a speaker on a panel of writers talking about people outside the system. After the formal section had finished, the chair invited questions and comments from the audience. One lovely lady stood up and, addressing Markus, said, "Markus, I just have to tell you that I am passionately in love with your words". That just said it so eloquently.

 

I think it is very much worth bearing in mind also that Zusak's parents grew up in the area where the book is set, and the incident with the starving old man on his way to the concentration camp is based on a real life incident that his mother related to him. The book has credibility to the max.

 

I remember that in "Angela's Ashes" Frank McCourt wrote a fabulous line about reading, something like "The words were like jewels in my mouth". I felt just that way about this beautiful book, as though it is a gift delivered right from the writer's hands to the reader, and you will always feel so privileged to have been given it.

 

Cheers ...

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