The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Title:  The Book Thief

Author:  Markus Zusak

Paperback:  354 pages

Publisher:  Transworld Publishers (div of Random House)

Publish Date:  2005

ISBN:  9780552773898

Miscellaneous: Don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post. It includes info on The Book Thief‘s future as a movie, and several quotes from the book I wasn’t able to work into this review.

On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil.  The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then slowing down, slowing down…

Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born.  I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks.  I listened to their last, gasping cries.  Their French words.  I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.

I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it.  In complete desolation, I looked at the world above.  I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain.  Even the clouds tried to look the other way.

Sometimes, I imagined how everything appeared above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 358

I finished The Book Thief  by Markus Zasuk on Tuesday, but have not been able to stop thinking about it since.  Normally, I sit down and write the review as soon as I finish a book, then pick up the next book and move on.  However, when I read the last words of The Book Thief :

A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR:  I am haunted by humans.

I found myself not wanting to let the book go.  I told myself I wanted to wait to review it so it could sink in and ruminate.  I had already posted it on BookMooch figuring, like most books, I wouldn’t want to reread it, and it was mooched up right away, but now I don’t want to give it up.  I have put off starting Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I don’t want to put anything else in there ever again.  All of this is utterly baffling to me because I have never had an attachment or a reaction to any book like this.

The book itself, plot-wise and such, is easy to sum up.  It is the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief, who comes to live the Hubermann’s at age nine as their foster daughter.  On the way to Molching, where the Hubermann’s live, Liesel’s younger brother dies and is buried in a cemetery at the next stop.  It is in this place she “steals” her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, after it falls out of the pocket of the apprentice gravedigger.  As the novel progresses, Liesel makes friends with other children on Himmel (a word that means “heaven”) Street, the Hubermann’s take in and hide a Jew, and Liesel discovers the awe-inspiring private library of the mayor’s wife, from which she liberates a book now and then.  All this is told by the book’s narrator, Death.

Summarizing the book is simple.  Explaining and conveying how it effected me, the reader, is anything but.  First of all, Zusak writes with a poetic beauty that captures the way children take in the world around them.  He often crosses the communication of the five senses:

At times, in that basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her hears.  She could feel the sweet burn of champagne on her tongue. -p. 365

One line I remember but was unable to find said something like “The smell of the sound of my footsteps,”   and there are so many more lines like these in the book.

Another concept Zusak descriptively conveys is the power of words.</p>

Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power.  It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence. -p. 154

She couldn’t tell exactly where the words came from.  What mattered was that they reached her.  They arrived and kneeled next to the bed. -p. 246

After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book.  She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time.  Liesel could see it on her face.  Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips.  Her eyes had blackened.  Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin.  All from words.  From Liesel’s words. -p. 273

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he said.  “I will not have to…”  His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible…  He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany.  It was a nation of Farmed thoughts. -p. 451

Frighteningly, it was exactly through the power of words and a healthy dose of charisma that Hitler was able to accomplish all the evil that was done in his name.  He himself didn’t do the physical work, that would have required him to be in several places at once making that impossible, but through the words of his speeches and policies others took up his cause.  Even more frightening is that his words are still used and followed to this day by some.

Also, through the use of Death, the ultimate impartial onlooker, as narrator Zusak is able to make epiphanic observations about human beings:

In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being.  So much good, so much evil.  Just add water. -p. 171

I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men.  They are not.  They’re running at me. -p. 182

Death also points out that, beginning with houses of cards and sandcastles, humans “watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse and… smile at the beauty of destruction.”  And he states a couple of times that the human child is much cannier than the adult.

By far, however, the most important observation Death makes, the concept that sets the tenor of the entire book is this:

AN OBSERVATION
A pair of train guards.
A pair of gravediggers.
When it came down to it, one
of them called the shots. The
other did what he was told.The
question is, what if the

other is a lot more than one?
-p. 30

What happens when there are a lot more people who simply do as there told, without question?  What happens to a society when a madman can rule through eloquent speeches, expressing ideals of hatred, and inspiring others to carry out morally reprehensible acts of violence and wickedness?

The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is haunting and breath-taking, poetically beautiful and filled with truth.  Death often expresses sardonic, almost bitter, statements of irony, all the while telling the reader he is impartial.  He points out both the evil and the good of humans, expresses both disappointment and admiration of the species among whom he walks and collects.  It is a Homeric work that is full of joy and sorrow, anger and forgiveness, love and loss.  It is the story of a handful of people in Nazi Germany during 1939-1945; adults, children, Catholic, Nazi, and Jew, the “free” (was anyone truly free then?) and the hidden, the epitome of the “master race” and the persecuted and annihilated.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you’ll take a look to the right, you’ll notice I’ve added a new widget in the sidebar labelled “Mt. TBR Hall of Fame.”  This is my Top 10 favorite books of all-time.  This, honestly, is an imprecise feat, as I know I’ll think of a book that I liked better but forgot, or I’ll read a book that will replace a book on here, and that is okay because I can always edit it.  When I added the widget, I was in the middle of reading The Book Thief, but it had already impressed me enough to be listed in 6th place… and I hadn’t even finished it yet.  And after finishing it and digesting it and writing this review, it has moved up to first place.

Obviously, as The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is now my all-time favorite book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.  It should be included in school curriculum alongside The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s NightThe Book Thief has both historicity and literary eloquence, and will undoubtedly become a classic.

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Again, don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post.

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

Title:  The Last Battle

Author:  C. S. Lewis

Paperback:  767 pages

Publisher:  HarperCollins

Publish Date:  2001

ISBN:  0066238501

Miscellaneous:  The copy I have read is in a complete book.  There aren’t 767 pages in The Last Battle alone.

 

 

 

“Look!  What’s that?”

 “What’s what?” said Puzzle.

 “That yellow thing that’s just come down the waterfall.  Look!  There it is again, it’s floating.  We must find out what it is.”

 “Must we?” said Puzzle.

 “Of course we must,” said Shift.  “It may be something useful.  Just hop into the Pool like a good fellow and fish it out.  Then we can have a proper look at it.”

 … He flung it down in front of Shift and stood dripping and shivering and trying to get his breath back.  But the Ape never looked at him or asked him how he felt.  The Ape was too busy going round and round the thing and spreading it out and patting it and smelling it.  Then a wicked gleam came into his eye and he said:  “It is a lion’s skin…. We’ll make this skin into a fine warm winter coat for you.”

 …As soon as he was alone Shift went… into his little house.  He found needle and thread and a big pair of scissors… Then he came down the tree and shambled across to the lion-skin.  He squatted down and got to work…

 Late in the afternoon Puzzle came back.  He was not trotting but only plodding patiently along, the way donkeys do…  “Come and try on your beautiful new lion-skin coat,” said Shift.

 … The skin was very heavy for him to lift, but in the end… he got it on to the donkey… No one who had ever seen a real lion would have been taken in for a moment.  But if someone who had never seen a lion looked at Puzzle in his lion-skin he just might mistake him for a lion…  “If anyone saw you now, they’d think you were Aslan, the Great Lion, himself.”

 

-The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, pages 671-673

 

Thus begins the great deception and the beginning of the end of Narnia.  Shift the Ape manipulates and bullies Puzzle the Donkey into believing that Aslan himself wants them to go to the people of Narnia and claim Puzzle is really the Great Lion, and to rule the land through this pretense.  Puzzle has been used by Shift for so long (under the guise of “friendship,” though “servitude” might better describe the Donkey’s side of the relationship), that he is unable to stand up to the damn, dirty Ape (nod to Heston and “Planet of the Apes” hehe).

It is through this false-Aslan that Shift enslaves the land of Narnia, using the Animals as slaves and threatening anyone who dares to question his authority with the Wrath of Aslan.  “He is not a tame lion” is repeated over and over to fill their minds with terror, and, even when they know this new “Aslan” is the opposite of everything they’ve always been taught is the nature of the true Aslan, the Narnians are unable to throw off the Ape’s bonds and fight back.

Even when Shift brings in Calormene soldiers and announces that the Narnian Animals are to be sent to work, and all their wages are to be paid to “Aslan’s” treasury, for only “Aslan” can care for their true needs.  Compounding a lie with a lie, the Calormene Captain and Shift tell the Animals that Tash, the Calormene god to whom men are sacrificed, and Aslan are one in the same; two different names for the same person.  This new god is called “Tashlan,” the meshing of the two names.

When Tirian, the last King of Narnia, calls on Aslan to rescue his country, the Great Lion is silent, so Tirian, remembering how children from another world had saved Narnia in it’s darkest periods of history, calls on the friends of Narnia to come and save his land.  And, after a vision-dream of the seven legendary Friends sitting down to dinner and seeing the phantom of Tirian among them, he is surprised by the appearance of Jill and Eustace.  Along with Jewel the Unicorn, who is Tirian’s best friend, the two children and a Dwarf named Poggin, the stage is set for the last battle of Narnia.

 

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving.  It was gliding very slowly Northward.  At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it.  But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke.  Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done.  It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak.  It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers – all twenty of them – were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails.  It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it…. [They] watched it… until it streamed away… and disappeared.  Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing….

“I have seen it once before,” said Tirian. “But that time it was carved in stone and overlaid with gold and had solid diamonds for eyes…. [It was in] the great temple of Tash… carved above the altar.”

“What was it?” said Eustace in a whisper.

 

-The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, page 712

 

 The entrance of the Calormene god Tash takes this final fight into the realm of the supernatural, as it becomes the epic battle of the ultimate good, Aslan, and his antithesis Tash:  Life versus Death.

 The message of The Last Battle, I believe, is this:  We are not always meant to win the good fight, only to FIGHT the good fight.  Early on in the book we know this is a lost cause, the side of evil will prevail, and the heroes’ lives  will be forfeit.  But, even then, Aslan will have the final say.

 In The Last Battle, Lewis also addresses two major questions of Christianity.  First, how can a person who has known the goodness and greatness of Christ turn his or her back on Him, choosing, instead, their own will.  Second, what of those people who have never heard the Gospel and therefore had no chance to believe?  Will He condemn them to Hell?

 Missing for the Friends of Narnia is Susan, and somehow I knew this immediate when I counted eight helpers of Narnia, but only seven Friends of Narnia.  Somehow I knew the missing person was Susan.

 

“Sire,” said Tirian… “there should be another… Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have!  Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

“Oh, Susan!”  said Jill.  “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight to keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her shool time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

 

-The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, page 741

 

Susan turned away from Narnia and Aslan and, instead, made vanity and things of the world her focus.  BUT, Lewis did not say she could not become a Friend of Narnia again.  Further, someone had to survive to tell The Chronicles of Narnia.

 As the Seven plus Tirian go “further up, further in,” they meet a Calormene who tells them of his meeting Aslan:

 

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him.  Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.  Both the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my fourehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’  But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’  He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service to me.’ Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’  The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false.  Not because4 he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the service which thou hast done to him.  For I and he are such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.  Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.  And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.  Dost thou understand, Child?’  I said, ‘Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.’   But I said also (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’  ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly.  For all find what they truly seek.’

 

-The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, page 757

 

 Honestly, it was impossible to review this book without incorporating the religious aspects of it.  That is not to say it can’t be enjoyed without being religious.  It stands alone as the heart-wrenching finale of a much loved and favorite literary classic series.  I couldn’t help but cry at the end; for the beauty, for the Friends, for all who had been were together again… and for Susan, who, by her folly, missed the train (if you’ve read this, or when you do read this, book you’ll get that reference).

 The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis is beyond words, and I sigh with a bittersweet happiness, as I have come to the end of my journey through Narnia.  I leave you with the last paragraph of the last book of Narnia:

 

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page:  now at last they were beginning Chaper One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on for ever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

 

-The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, page 767

 

5 out of 5 stars.

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