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.

 hated it!didn't like itIt was okayLiked it.Loved it!

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

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Derailed by James Siegel

derailedTitle:  Derailed

Author:  James Siegel

Hardback:  339 pages

Publisher:  Warner Books, Inc.

Publish Date:  February 2003

ISBN:  0446531588

Every day Charles Schine rides the 8:43 to do the job he has done for over a decade in a New York advertising agency.  With a wife and an ill child who depend on him, Charles is not a man who likes changes or takes risks… until he is late for his regular train – and sits down across from the woman of his dreams.

Her name is Lucinda.  Like Charles, she is married.  Like Charles, she takes the train every day to work in New York City.  Her train is the 9:05, and tomorrow she will be on it again – and so will Charles.  For there is something about Lucinda, the flash of thigh beneath her short skirt, the way every man on the train is eyeing her, something about this time of the morning that will make Charles take a chance he shouldn’t take, break a vow he shouldn’t break, and enter a room he should never enter…

In a matter of days, a flirtation turns to a passion, and Charles and Lucinda are drawn into the dark side of the American Dream.  In a matter of weeks, Charles’s life is in shambles.  A man is dead.  A small fortune is stolen.  Charles’s home is violated and everything violently spirals out of control.

But Charles is about to discover that once you leave the straight and narrow, getting back on track is the most perilous journey of all.  And for Charles, that journey – of lies, terror, and deception – has just begun…

An extraordinary work of Hitchcockian psychological twists and high-voltage intensity, this novel brilliantly weaves together a man’s past and present into a story of menace – and hurtles us toward an astounding, surprising ending.  Brace yourself for a roller-coaster ride through the frightening darkness that lies waiting around us – and within us – once our lives become DERAILED …

Derailedby James Siegel,  dust cover blurb

Derailedby James Siegel  is full of twists and turns and punch-in-the-gut dramatic stops that propel the story forward at a terrifying pace.  It’s very easy to have sympathy for Charles, though it was through his own actions that the world is crumbling down around him, and to will him to win out over Vasguez and his accomplices.  Derailed illustrates the “line upon line, precept upon precept” and “slippery slope” concepts as Charles crosses farther and farther into moral ambiguity while trying to hide his adulterous indiscretion, a secret any reader with a brain KNOWS will eventually come out.

All in all, the book is a good book in that it entertains and thrills the reader.  It does experience some slow spots, but those are more for the purpose of lulling the reader in order to amplify the coming shock.  And for the most part, the story is believable and possible, enough is established before the bomb that saves Charles goes off to prevent it from feeling like a deus ex machina.  However, beyond the initial horror of the rape scene and terror of being stalked, the book isn’t memorable.

Derailedby James Siegel is intense, has a lot of violence, language and sex, and not for sensitive readers or anyone under 18.  I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

I have a feeling Derailed is a better movie than book. Here’s the movie’s trailer:

Blaze by Richard Bachman

Title: Blaze

Author: Richard Bachman (pen name used by Stephen King)

Hardcover: pages 286

Publisher: Scribner (A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc)

Publish Date: June 2007

ISBN: 9781416554844

One hungover Saturday morning when not much was doing, Clayton Senior staggered out of the bedroom in the second-floor apartment he and his son shared while Clay was sitting crosslegged on the living room floor, watching cartoons and eating Apple Jacks. “How many times have I told you not to eat that shit in here?” Senior inquired of Junior, then picked him up and threw him downstairs. Clay landed on his head.

His father went down, got him, toted him back upstairs, and threw him down again. The first time, Clay remained conscious. The second time, the lights went out. His father went down, got him, toted him upstairs, and looked him over. “Fakin sonofabitch,” he said, and threw him down again.

“There,” he told the limp huddle at the foot of the stairs that was his now comatose son. “Maybe you’ll think twice before you tote that fucking shit into the living room again.”

Unfortunately, Clay never thought twice about much of anything. He lay unconscious in Portland General Hospital for three weeks. The doctor in charge of his case voiced the opinion that he would remain so until he died, a human carrot. But the boy woke up. He was, unfortunately, soft in the head.

So began the life of Clayton “Blaze” Blaisdell, Jr. the main character of this noir homage to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Stephen King, Richard Bachman’s real name, writes in the foreword that Blaze is a “trunk novel,” which is to say a manuscript written long ago which the author decided was unworthy of publication at the time, but now that he’s a famous author he’s pulled it out, dusted it off and shipped it to print. Well… not exactly. Actually, Blaze went through some rewriting and editing and updating. Where as Blaze had grown up in post WWII America, the new-and-improved, modernized Blaze grew up in “America, Not All That Long Ago,” as King calls it. It’s an interesting mix of old and new: George says “Shag, baby,” others say “far out” and the money goes a LOT farther in the book with dime payphones and $200 buying a complete baby outfitting, from the ground up (crib, changing table, clothes, formula, the works!).

Blaze is, as I said, a noir homage to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Just imagine what that classic novel would have been like if Stephen King had written it: George is a small time con-artist looking for that big score he can retire on, Blaze… well, he’s still a huge hulking man with the mentality of a 10 year old who doesn’t know his own strength and who relies on George to know what to do. George is still a gruff, insulting, small man for whom (Lenny) Blaze would do anything for, including jump off a building or in Blaze’s case, take 2 years in prison and not rat out his friend. And oh yeah, in King’s version of OMaM, George is a ghost and Blaze has a sixth sense about things.

Blaze is a character you can feel sympathy for. A rough childhood in Hetton House, lovingly dubbed “Hell House” by John, Blaze’s only friend, the state-run orphanage. He’s huge, standing 6’7″ and 270 lbs, with the power of life and death literally in his strong hands. As a kid and teen he stands up for his friends and protects them, even pursues vengence for them from their bullies. He’s lonely and alone, with George as his only friend. Blaze could have turned out to be a good, law abiding person had he had the right influence, as it was he fell in with criminals and therefore became one himself, though never really grasping the morality of the right and wrong of their activities.

When Blaze decides to carry out “the big score” that George had planned out before his untimely death, which was the kidnapping of a wealthy couple’s six-month-old baby, he inevitably fails to cover all his tracks, thus dooming the caper before it’s even begun.

Blaze has no desire to hurt the baby, but George tells him he has to because the baby will just slow him down. He grows very attached to little Joe and decides to collect the ransom and run away with the money and the baby, like he’s a puppy to carry off (and remember what Lenny did to his puppy 😉 ).

As I loved Of Mice and Men, and Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, you will no doubt guess that I also loved Blaze. Though it’s more like a crime thriller than say, a psychic psychotic murderous prom princess, it’s still noticeably King. And though it’s not my favorite SK book, it’s definitely an excellent read that never gave away it’s ending. The book also includes a short story called “Memory,” which later became Duma Key, the book that I believe is King’s masterpiece. Well written and constructed, Blaze gets 4 out of 5 stars.