All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

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Happy reading!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The first thing you should know about The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is that it is narrated by Death. The book's prologue and the first few chapters introduce you to the narrator and to the colors he sees, which figure prominently in the descriptions of taking souls from the dying. You will quickly discover why Death is the book's narrator. The story is set in Germany. It is 1939, and Hitler is in power. Death is very busy.

At one point, Death lamented the pace of his work:

"There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns." (p. 308)

The book's central character is Leisel Meminger, who is 9 years old at the beginning of the novel. She is being transported, along with a brother, to a foster family. Her brother dies en route (Death's first exposure to Leisel), and she is haunted by his loss and that of her parents, who are mysteriously linked to the word "Kommunist." She comes to feel they were enemies of Hitler, and develops a special sensitivity to the plight of the Jews. Her foster family is also sympathetic, and as time passes and war visits their city, there are costly and dangerous opportunities for them to demonstrate their sympathy.

It is at her brother's funeral that Liesel steals her first book. She picks up a copy of gravedigging instructions dropped at the gravesite. She learns to read, and discovers the power of words to entrance and soothe, command and destroy. The significance of words and books is an engaging element of this story. A copy of Mein Kampf plays a special role as passport, both for an escaping Jew and for Leisel.

The narration style is odd, especially in the prologue and beginning chapters, with short, bold insets of facts, descriptions, and definitions. This becomes more expected and comfortable to the reader as the book progresses. Death also has a tendency to reveal what has happened first, and then provide the details. While you'd think this would spoil the ending, in fact, it offers relief to the reader. Death is sympathetic to the readers's sense of loss, and describes how he gently cradled a soul as he carried it away.

The book was distributed as teen literature, and was a Michael L. Printz honor book. The book's powerful themes, complex characters, and tragic realities make it appropriate for adults. In fact, aside from the age of the main characters, I saw little that would necessarily make it more appealing to teens than adults.

The Book Thief was copyrighted in 2005 and published by Alfred A. Knopf. Zuzak is also the author of I am the Messenger. You can learn more about Zusak at Random House.

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