struggling and zusak


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, (2005).

Knopf paperback edition, Sept 2007.

552 pages.

Am I  just this indecisive, or is the head-cold slowing me down? Or are my sharpest critical skills dulling? One of the points of this blog is to slow the ingestion of books and consider them, then of course, write about them in some form or another.

It is not unusual for me to not form an opinion on a book right away. I have read some that I immediately disliked, but the more I thought about it, I could appreciate certain aspects of the book or story and I come around to liking it a bit. I finished this book on Tuesday. Have slept two nights on it (not literally–this time).

I do not dislike The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  And if I did, I feel sure I could say so, despite all the lauding the book has received. So there is one, almost, definitive statement.

Usually, when I like a book, I want to read the author’s other works, or at least one other.  I did not encounter that sensation with this book. Not at any point throughout. I was curious if the author had published before, so I checked the back cover; that was about 1/10 of the way through. Through perusing reviews, I hear phenomenal things about I Am The Messenger, the book written before The Book Thief. Maybe I will get to it.

Really, why the resistance? He presents like a kind of author I would especially like. Willing to play with conventions, prose-style writing, unusual angles, etc. If I were medicating, I would blame the numbness on that.  I hate struggling when it should seem so straightforward–just adore the damn book, Leslie.

I hate when I have to consider my criteria for a good read; especially when even reader response perspective fails me.

I spent last night and this morning reading reviews on little blogs and in bigger papers and Journals in order to prepare myself for this blog. New York Times Book Review helped with one of my questions. The question is: The Book Thief is marketed to the Teen/YA crowd; Would any non-literary Teen read this book and like it as well as the adults appear to–if at all? (I write this assuming you have read the book, or have read all the gazillion forms the synopsis of the book and it’s reviews have taken.  Or you may want to go to a book shop and just read the prologue and then flip through to view the forms the story takes, then you may get an idea of what I may be referring to with my question.) John Green ends his review of The Book Thief with this paragraph:

Some will argue that a book so difficult and sad may not be appropriate for teenage readers. The Book Thief was published for adults in Zusak’s native Australia, and I strongly suspect it was written for adults. Adults will probably like it (this one did), but it’s a great young-adult novel. Many teenagers will find the story too slow to get going, which is a fair criticism. But it’s the kind of book that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, The Book Thief offers us a believable, hard-won hope. That hope is embodied in Liesel, who grows into a good and generous person despite the suffering all around her, and finally becomes a human even Death can love. The hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence. Young readers need such alternatives to ideological rigidity, and such explorations of how stories matter. And so, come to think of it, do adults.

I wouldn’t argue that the “sadness” of the book would be inappropriate. I do wonder at it’s difficulty, however. Not the difficulty of the subject matter, but the form of the story. It is difficult and slow, not due to the desire to look away from the events portrayed, but the way it way it is written is time-consuming. And the book is 552 pages. If I were assigned this as required reading in High School I would protest, unless it were a year long reading project. The Book Thief is the crafted, not formulated. The writing requires time, all 552 pages of it; this is not a bad thing.

What I am weighing–in the book:

The slow, cumbersome, start. When you read a variety of stories, you understand that some require an adjustment; whether it is the language, or form; not unlike watching films.  Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (a recent read) had me pausing, re-reading, to understand the words and their sentences. I had to switch a gear or two. Zizek’s Looking Awry is of a language, and is full of concepts to review, and words to look up, as well. And then there is the savoring of a word, an image, an idea; The Book Thief has these moments.

The images and the poetic prose style. I can capture some images, so clearly. However, I am still struggling with a photographic image of Max–or even a fuzzy one. I think I  have decided to picture him as Adrian Brody, due to the “swampy eyes” feature. I think I am just going to make up what I think “feather” hair (“a collection of feather”) looks like. If you don’t get an image you can live with from his descriptions, forget it, he does not use other word pictures for his characters. (Would I mind if I weren’t reading Fly By Night and Frances Hardinge’s descriptive genius?)

I slide in and out of the abstract: the taste of sounds, the colors of things.  Zusak throws the reader into the concrete, and then after the blow you are returned to the purely sensory abstractions. This mimics Death’s response to his work. A move Death says he uses to alleviate the burden/pain inherent in the events of the story. For the reader, the technique eases us into the depression, rather than screaming for 255 pages. The difficulty I was having was the elusiveness of some of the images, and the interruptions of sinking into the world of the book by the narrator.

***I am referring to the clever, somewhat asides***

(thus marked)

I do like the playing with visuals. However, I was longing  not for routine, but for some rhythmic charity with those notes. I can tell you that I hated that the book ended with “a note from the narrator” spaced, asteriked, and bold. I think my tears dried up quite suddenly beneath that frown.

The narrator, you may have heard, is Death. Fantastic idea, especially considering the setting. And I like the characterization Zusak creates for Death. (an aside: if you like Death characterized here, you will adore Neil Gaiman’s Death (if you are not already aware of her) from the Sandman books.) I like Death’s observations on human kind, and colors. And I didn’t mind Death, as a narrator, giving away endings. It is similar to Wuthering Heights in the giving endings you can work toward with determined curiosity. And they are also similar (for me) in the experience of my ability to set the book down without needing to turn pages, or stay up late. The parts that The Book Thief is divided into made this all to convenient. Oh, another similarity? Non-linearity in the story line. I do like this.

The Book Thief works in a collection of short stories strewn together by Death’s narrative whims. There are two differentiated short stories included in the book ‘authored and illustrated’ by the character Max. There are the excerpts read from books being read in the book. And then there is The Book Thief as authored by Liesel, from which Death is relaying many of the accounts. This stitched collection adds to the necessity for a slower read. First there are the words and images, and then the whole of a story, and then you must place it into the greater story which may yet need to fit into the book you picked up to read. Everything included works into the overall story, some moments more seamlessly than others. This is not a book you just read and contemplate as an easy whole, unless you are quicker with the meanings of some of those shorter stories. I am still working out “The Word Shaker.”

What is tricky (risky) in the collecting stories to retell as a greater movement, is if one of the stories fails–or alienates in its indecipherability.

Evident in the book was a desire/need to ground the reader in its logic. This must be historical fiction, not fantasy–the book begs; understanding that Death as a narrator is an less-usual approach. One of the book’s greatest impacts is that it resides in a horrific true historical event. This is not to say, of course, that Fantasy needn’t follow a logic base. Each book/story creates a premise of logic that demands recognition. In The Book Thief a premise is that Death retrieved a book written by Liesel (The Book Thief) and he can confidently show us her life because he has read the book; those parts where Death could not plausibly be present can still be told. Death reminds the reader that he can tell the stories because Liesel told them to him. And so when the story appears so well detailed and breathing, it is because Liesel is observant and gifted, so the story she writes down and Death tells us seems to reaffirm. The story is careful in its crafting, and resides very dangerously close to clever.

The characters and their stories, their characterizations, make the book a story and not a literary art project. They are what make the story readable, and found the reason why anyone could/should read the book for any sense of enjoyment. The book is insightful, and educational–eye-opening for many, I should think; but there are plenty of those about that are fairly dull, aren’t there?

The book reads like an exploration, a contemplation, rather than the plot driven novel–which effects the speed and pacing of the experience. Short stories needn’t a plot; we demand that the novel must. What keeps us going for 552 pages…and why turn those pages in the fewest sittings possible?–short-term memory loss? This is not fast-food, you have to let it set in your mouth to discover the flavor.

I like that Liesel lives with ghosts–a favored part.I struggle with the idea of her being a “book thief;” not because I disapprove of thieving, it is what Rudy points out late in the book when he accuses Liesel of not really stealing the books at all. I am not sure what to do with this, because the answer Rudy received did not feel like an answer at all…or did he receive an answer. Will have to re-read that part again.

I love Rudy. I like Rosa. I love Hans, and I don’t think he is as “implausible” as John Green would suggest (“the implausibly saintly Hans Hubermann (that is, über-man)”); though Green brings up a point of names and archtypes. The Book Thief is terribly thick with literary endeavor. I can smell sweat on the pages.

Can you like something you respect? Is this my difficulty with the book? Zusak birthed an Indie child that has found popular approval. I am wondering how? especially in a market where poorly aped formulas are slapped with one of three of a genre’s seasonal covers, made it on the YA shelves? No offense intended to those gifted and need-to-not-starve authors out there. Is it the need to infiltrate the masses with something the literary teen will salivate over? Or is it merely that the protagonist is a youth, and the reprieve is a pleasant side-effect? Or is it that Zusak is finding some freedom in having published a few already. Careful, I will digress into my usual industry perplexities.

I would recommend this book; but I would not think badly of a person for putting it down and not finishing it. That feels horrible to admit. I think the perseverance is rewarded. I would suggest this read to an adult and a teen; and I would sympathize if this were assigned in high school, or middle-school TAG.

I hope to move out my ambivalence soon; it is uncomfortable. I think writing out some string of thought regarding the book has helped. I know I will eventually re-read it. Owning it helps. I have other things I promised I would move onto.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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