Before I start the review as proper, there’s something I have to talk about in regards to the last post:

This blog is designed with a specific goal in mind. Apart from the obvious goal of reviewing The Book Thief, I am also striving to combine critical analysis with the joy of reading. At the end of my previous review, I feel it is safe to say that I veered straight off the course of critical analysis in more ways than one.

I have tried to avoid this, at least in these reviews, but the events in the last chapter struck home too hard for me so combined with Zusak’s vivid writing I had such a strong emotional reaction that when I was done I feared it was not even publishable. I considered editing the entire thing in fact for fear I would be labeled an immature spaz or an attention whore. But I decided this would be dishonest in portraying my reaction. So I hope you read it knowing why I wrote it the way that I did and know I will try my best to be analytical and professional from here on out without letting the story affect me to the point of childishness that I regressed to the way that it did.

To start off, Part Two is titled “the shoulder shrug“, perhaps Death and humanity at large’s answer as to why such senseless cruelty and mass death was taking place all over the world during this time.

The subtitle is

featuring:
a girl made of darkness – the joy of cigarettes – a town walker – some dead letters – hitler’s birthday – 100 percent pure german sweat – the gates of thievery – and a book of fire

This makes it fairly easy to figure out what is likely to come:

I mean, “a girl made of darkness” – that’s obviously Liesel and we damn well know why.

The second, third, and fourth subtitles are very confusing, however. Perhaps the second refers to Liesel’s only solace being her bond with Hans or Hans’ only solace being his cigarettes in the terrible war years that he’s already lived and fought through once. I don’t know what to make of the latter two, though.

It’s pretty easy to figure out what the rest mean, though: something will happen at Hitler’s birthday, the Nazis will march, there will probably be some sort of severe anti-Jewish acts, and then Liesel will steal the second book.

A GIRL MADE OF DARKNESS

But even if we didn’t know where Part Two would be taking us, even if some reader couldn’t make heads or tails of the subtitle, Zusak spells out where it will end at the very beginning of this chapter, which serves basically as a prologue for the part to come, much like the 4 chapters that introduced the whole book.

*** SOME STATISTICAL INFORMATION ***
First stolen book: January 13, 1939
Second stolen book: April 20, 1940
Duration between said stolen books: 463 days

I have a deep-seated love for history, timeline chronology and specific dates, so I feel like starting off the first chapter like this is something put here specifically for me.

And it’s an enjoyable way of showing us how long we have to wait for this, for the purpose obviously is to prep us for said event, as he makes sure to flagrantly spell out for us right here:

The problem, however, is this:
This is no time to be flippant.
It’s no time to be half watching, turning around, or checking the stove-because when the book thief stole her second book, not only were there many factors involved in her hunger to do so, but the act of stealing it triggered the crux of what was to come.

Translation: THIS IS REALLY REALLY SERIOUS BUSINESS, HAVE YOU GOT THAT? HAVE YOU GOT THAT? NO?!!!!

But the problem is this. Zusak’s foreshadowing often feels more like blatantly spoiling what’s to come. In fact, there’s so much of it that it feels like we’ve already read these events rather than being teased for them to come.

It would provide her with a venue for continued book thievery. It would inspire Hans Hubermann to come up with a plan to help the Jewish fist fighter.

You see, he gives us so much information that it honestly feels like I’ve skipped several chapters ahead. In fact, I actually wonder if the book would make just as much sense if I just skipped to Part 3 or Part 6, even.

I will grant that he does close this segment with a rather poetic and well-written thought:

And it would show me, once again, that one opportunity leads directly to another, just as risk leads to more risk, life to more life, and death to more death.

But then he keeps giving us just so many facts, one after the other. With the Rudy Steiner Incident, he told us so much ahead of time we didn’t really need to see it, except for Rudy’s conversation with his father in the end.

In regards to what I presume is going to be the big climax to this part, he’s already told us Liesel rescued the second book from a fire, and now he tells us that it was a book burning held by the Nazis, tells us what the book is and what it looks like, and tells us how Liesel felt about stealing it afterwards, why she did it in the first place, and tells us when it happened.

However, he does in the process give us an interesting perspective by Death about the Germans’ frequent arsons, which does well at imagining what someone unaccustomed to human culture might think of it.

And maybe I shouldn’t be harsh without knowing the bigger picture. It’s just that I like to be surprised, and maybe I should focus on this aspect of his writing again once I have the full picture.

He does seem to be doing everything I’ve complained about on purpose, honestly, and may even want me to have the reaction I had. There is some promising foreshadowing here:

At the end of an afternoon that had contained much excitement, much beautiful evil, one blood-soaked ankle, and a slap from a trusted hand, Liesel Meminger attained her second success story.

You see, the reason why this foreshadowing is so well done is because he’s teasing us with elements that don’t make sense yet, but intrigue us, and make us eager to read to see how they all pop into place with what we’ve been told so far. So maybe he’s not doing as bad a job as I thought.

Oh, and I love this. Liesel is just angry in general now, quite understandably so, and Death has the audacity to say this:

The question, of course, should be why?
What was there to be angry about?
What had happened in the past four or five months to culminate in such a feeling?

It might be more fitting to ask why she shouldn’t be “a girl made of darkness”.

Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.

Yes, we get it! You gave Liesel the worst experience ever, made us expect the worst for her, then gave her a bundle of happiness out of nowhere for an uninterrupted 8 months, just to ruin it again with the worst things ever! For crying out loud, STOP BEING SUCH A SADIST.

THE JOY OF CIGARETTES

Now we get the answer as to why Liesel being “a girl made of darkness” was a strange thing by April 20, 1940.

One-by-one, in an almost poetic fashion, Zusak checks off all the problems in her life (except for missing Werner and her mother) and ends with the following summing-up:

All of this resulted in at least some form of contentment and would soon be built upon to approach the concept of Being Happy.

It’s easy to relate to such beautiful writing, though in passages like this, Zusak comes off a bit too warm and human for the voice of Death:

She loved and hated her best friend, Rudy Steiner, which was perfectly normal.

And seriously, I can’t believe that HE’S DOING IT AGAIN HE’S DOING IT AGAIN! I swear, it’s like he knows I’m here reviewing this book! I tell him to stop being a sadist and he pretends to go along with it in such a blatantly sarcastic tone.

*** THE KEYS TO HAPPINESS ***

1. Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

2. Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.

3. Receiving two books for Christmas.

I hope that these goals will be reached. Even if the happiness will be abruptly smashed right after that, I’m still going to keep my check list handy and cheer at their fulfillment.

December 17.
She remembered the date well, as it was exactly a week before Christmas.

So either there’s no hope at all or the race will be starting, for the timer has been set.

As usual, her nightly nightmare interrupted her sleep and she was woken by Hans Hubermann. His hand held the sweaty fabric of her pajamas. “The train?” he whispered.
Liesel confirmed. “The train.”

The book proceeds like a simple check-off list.

When the book closed, they shared a sideways glance. Papa spoke.
“We made it, huh?”
Liesel, half-wrapped in blanket, studied the black book in her hands and its silver lettering. She nodded, dry-mouthed and early-morning hungry. It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way.

  • Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
  • Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
  • Receiving two books for Christmas.

And now we get something interesting:

One afternoon, she was tempted to steal a book from the class bookshelf, but frankly, the prospect of another corridor Watschen at the hands of Sister Maria was a powerful enough deterrent. On top of that, there was actually no real desire in her to take the books from school. It was most likely the intensity of her November failure that caused this lack of interest, but Liesel wasn’t sure. She only knew that it was there.

Death seemed to make it clear Liesel stole her second book due to anger likely at the Nazi Party, so it seems strange that her urge to steal books is suddenly showing itself here. I mean, I get that it’s to provide additional motivation for taking the second book in May, and she wants to practice reading, but she didn’t show much interest in stealing books before (except for Death’s foreshadowing in the future), so pointing it out as a lack of interest now seems odd.

Also, Liesel comes off a tad too unsympathetic here:

As winter set in, she was no longer a victim of Sister Maria’s frustrations, preferring to watch as others were marched out to the corridor and given their just rewards. The sound of another student struggling in the hallway was not particularly enjoyable, but the fact that it was someone else was, if not a true comfort, a relief.

This lack of empathy from people bothers me so much, and that was what triggered Liesel’s violent anger in the first place. So I can’t let this go by without comment. I mean, Liesel, it isn’t someone else! Just because it is not physically you in there this time doesn’t matter. You are not somehow magically more important than those other kids.

But, oh, whatever:

  • Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
  • Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
  • Receiving two books for Christmas.

And we cut right to Christmas!

Knowing that the Hubermanns were essentially broke, still paying off debts and paying rent quicker than the money could come in, she was not expecting a gift of any sort.

What? I’m sorry. That came out of nowhere. With all the stuff Death tells us that hasn’t happened yet, why didn’t we ever know about the Hubermanns’ financial problems before? It seems so strange to have it be mentioned here for the first time.

Perhaps only some better food.

Well, aw, so much for that check list, anyway.

To her surprise, on Christmas Eve, after sitting in church at midnight with Mama, Papa, Hans Junior, and Trudy, she came home to find something wrapped in newspaper under the Christmas tree.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yay!…… Wait, Hans, Jr. and Trudy are there? That’s strange. Why don’t we get more attention paid to them? I have to say, Zusak is much too impersonal at times.

We do get this, though:

Unfurling the paper, she unwrapped two small books.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
  • Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
  • Receiving two books for Christmas.

HAPPY HAPPY! LIESEL HAS UNLOCKED ALL THREE OF THE KEYS OF HAPPINESS! I NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD HAPPEN BUT IT DID IT DID. YAAAAAAY! :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

They are completely fictional books written by fictional authors, by the way: Faust the Dog by Mattheus Ottleberg and The Lighthouse by Ingrid Rippinstein.

And befitting Zusak’s style of giving us way too much information, Liesel reads the former 13 times and the latter a mere 9, and I have to say wow. Excluding picture books with no chapters when I was a child, I have never tended to re-read books at all. In fact, I think the only one I have read 13 times and probably more is Raggedy Ann & Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees. It’s also the only chapter book I’ve read anywhere near 9 times. And wow, that was embarrassing to admit.

Also, we’re being very meta here. I probably should have commented earlier, but I thought it went without saying that the reason a lot of book lovers probably love this book so much is because there is a lot of just plain celebrating the joy of books in passages like this. I don’t know if he wants this book used to teach a child to read, though, but one thing is for sure: it would definitely be just as morbid and inappropriate as The Grave Digger’s Handbook!

There’s something I probably shouldn’t ignore, though:

On Christmas Eve, she read the first twenty pages at the kitchen table while Papa and Hans Junior argued about a thing she did not understand. Something called politics.

This is the only thing that comes close to putting a damper on the happiness that’s on display here. I mean, these people, even though they’re living in Germany 74 years ago, feel so much like any family it’s easy to transplant meaningless political arguments our own family members have had over the holidays. But this is a few months into WWII, so is there really some horrible political clash between Hans and his son? Will Hans’ son later become a Nazi? It’s very easy to ignore, for the reasons I stated, but I find myself worrying here. (Also I knew perfectly well what politics were when I was ten years old. I had longwinded conversations with my father about the presidential election when I was eight, for that matter.)

But wait! One more thing: How did the Hubermanns manage to pay for the books, if they are so poor? Well, in the midst of some really glaring and kind of laughable visual analogies, we figure out and get our explanation for the very strange chapter title:

“That Saukerl,” she said. “You know what he did? He rolled up all of his filthy cigarettes, went to the market when it was in town, and traded them with some gypsy.”

“Eight cigarettes per book.” Papa shoved one to his mouth, in triumph. He lit up and took in the smoke. “Praise the Lord for cigarettes, huh, Mama?”

I’d like to clarify that I am in fact a 100% heterosexual male, and if Hans Hubermann were to show up at my door in any given moment in time I would break Ohio law to marry him in a heartbeat. Hell, even Rosa’s complaining doesn’t destroy the beautiful and flawless happiness we have on display here. She’s lovable in her own way as we’ve become endeared to her, and Hans puts a stop to it anyway. Of course he does.

It appeared that there was great joy in cigarettes, and it was a happy time in the Hubermann household.

So all is well at the end of this chapter. I can close the book now with a feeling of complete contentment and peace in the world. Things are perfect and they are going to stay that way forever.

Oh, wait. There’s one more sentence. Huh. Well, that’s odd.

It ended a few weeks later.

I literally just sat staring at these six words for quite some time, unwilling to believe my mind hadn’t made it up, and then when it proved tangible I just cracked up laughing. I mean, he’s here. Markus Zusak likes to switch through time just like Death, and while he was reading the book he kept looking in to see how I would react carefully watching every word I type, and then he constructed the whole book around emotionally manipulating me and responding to everything I say.

Well, Markus, my man, more than one consecutive week of flawless happiness is more than I ever expected out of you, so I will accept it gladly. Tank you veddy much.

THE TOWN WALKER

But he wastes no time in throwing us into the sadness:

The rot started with the washing and it rapidly increased.

There are so many examples of obvious foreshadowing in the book that I’ve probably given Zusak short-shrift. I’ve started to get the impression that a lot of it was done to distract from the more subtle foreshadowing. I mean, remember when I said that all the material relating to Rosa and Liesel delivering washing around town was pointless and you could cut out that entire chapter? Well, now Zusak’s really decided to taunt me and make me feel stupid for that assumption:

When Liesel accompanied Rosa Hubermann on her deliveries across Molching, one of her customers, Ernst Vogel, informed them that he could no longer afford to have his washing and ironing done. “The times,” he excused himself, “what can I say? They’re getting harder. The war’s making things tight.” He looked at the girl. “I’m sure you get an allowance for keeping the little one, don’t you?”

This happened to me with Rowling a few times, too, but it’s interesting to deal with an author who constantly circumvents and challenges your critiques. I mean, this isn’t the ideal method of reviewing, since I’m not getting the full picture. I may think I’ve got it all figured out by how much Zusak teases us with what’s to come, but really I don’t know what lies ahead. And it doesn’t help that I don’t have a very thorough knowledge of World War II. So I don’t really know how it affected the people in Germany. Jews, sure, the people being bombed in London, yeah. But when did things get bad for GERMANY, when did they start fighting back, to the point that Hitler supporters were inconvenienced by the war? That’s what I don’t know, so I’m actually more clueless than Zusak probably expects, honestly.

What is noteworthy is that even Rosa is shocked by this:
To Liesel’s dismay, Mama was speechless.

All she did was rant about these people, so it probably is a bad sign that she’s just horrified by the war and worried about what’s to come. I mean, the main complaints we heard from her about Vogel was that he was ugly and would scratch his hair and lick his fingers when he handed over the money, in addition to the fact that he wasted his money on alcohol and the washing (yes, she was brazen about that!), which would lead her to expect the worst when he’s stingy about money.

And she seems to be a bit too harsh on Liesel, as a result:

That night, when Liesel had a bath, Mama scrubbed her especially hard, muttering the whole time about that Vogel Saukerl and imitating him at two-minute intervals. “‘You must get an allowance for the girl. …’” She berated Liesel’s naked chest as she scrubbed away. “You’re not worth that much, Saumensch. You’re not making me rich, you know.”

Liesel sat there and took it.

It seemed like there was something lovable about her curmudgeonness before, but now as her frustration grows and she orders Liesel to start doing all the washing and lie to them about Rosa being sick to get pity, she’s just being so harsh with the poor girl who’s done nothing wrong that we can’t find any affection, and it’s kind of disturbing.

For a moment, it appeared that her foster mother would comfort her or pat her on the shoulder.

Good girl, Liesel. Good girl. Pat, pat, pat.

She did no such thing.  

Instead, Rosa Hubermann stood up, selected a wooden spoon, and held it under Liesel’s nose. It was a necessity as far as she was concerned. “When you’re out on that street, you take the bag to each place and you bring it straight home, with the money, even though it’s next to nothing. No going to Papa if he’s actually working for once. No mucking around with that little Saukerl, Rudy Steiner. Straight. Home.”

But we do get something pleasant, not only in Liesel’s one-time playful disregard for Rosa’s order on how to handle the bag. One of the things I loved about The Secret Garden was its message about the power of positive thinking, and how it was that that sold the fairy-tale like sentiment and silly mood of the story in the very true fact that whether a situation is terrible or not often depends on the extremes that we view them in. Very similarly, here, we get a very well-done, wholly deliberate contrast between the way Liesel dealt with the washing chore and looked at her employers from the way Rosa did. Back in the chapter I described as superfluous, Zusak used the narrative voice to carefully outline everything Rosa disliked about the neighbors, and now that the narrative is focused on Liesel, we get an analysis of the same things, only with Liesel finding affection and fondness in the very traits Rosa despised.

She came to like the people, too:

* The Pfaffelhürvers, inspecting the clothes and saying, ” Ja, ja, sehr gut, sehr gut.” Liesel imagined that they did everything twice.

* Gentle Helena Schmidt, handing the money over with an arthritic curl of the hand.

* The Weingartners, whose bent-whiskered cat always answered the door with them. Little Goebbels, that’s what they called him, after Hitler’s right-hand man.

* And Frau Hermann, the mayor’s wife, standing fluffy-haired and shivery in her enormous, cold-aired doorway. Always silent. Always alone. No words, not once.

Character contrast, I love you more than most things. (And that Liesel proceeds to flout the “no mucking around with Rudy Steiner” rule.)

We then get an abrupt shift, however, as Liesel and Rudy are assigned to write letters to other students in school.

Liesel’s letter from Rudy went like this:

Dear Saumensch,

Are you still as useless at soccer as you were the last time you played? I hope so. That means I can run past you again just like Jesse Owens at the Olympics. …

I like how Zusak includes comic relief like this and does not seem to keep the story from getting too dark and heavy, at least at this point.  And it’s nice to know Liesel has a good friend in the dark times that lie ahead.

It disturbs me how violent these nuns are, though:

When Sister Maria found it, she asked him a question, very amiably.

*** SISTER MARIA’S OFFER ***

“Do you feel like visiting the corridor, Mr. Steiner?”

My brother is a devout Catholic, but I find myself very wary of a religion whose practitioners seem to enjoy beating small children for whatever excuse they can conjure. Probably just me.

At home, while completing a letter for homework, Liesel decided that writing to Rudy or some other Saukerl was actually ridiculous. It meant nothing. As she wrote in the basement, she spoke over to Papa, who was repainting the wall again.

“Would I be able to write a letter to Mama?”

A pause.

“What do you want to write a  letter to her for? You have to put up with her every day.” Papa was schmunzeling-a sly smile. “Isn’t that bad enough?”

“Not that mama.” She swallowed.

Well, this is an interesting turn of events. I’m glad the narrative turned to this point, because I was wondering about Liesel’s mother. It’s bad enough she doesn’t know anything about where her own father is. I would like to get an update on her mother’s location.

“Frau Heinrich.”

“That’s right. Send it to her. Maybe she can send it on to your mother.” Even at the time, he sounded unconvincing, as if he wasn’t telling Liesel something. Word of her mother had also been tightlipped on Frau Heinrich’s brief visits.

Oh, God, no. Why? Why can we not have nice things? This is terrible, isn’t it?

It took three hours and six drafts to perfect the letter, telling her mother all about Molching, her papa and his accordion, the strange but true ways of Rudy Steiner, and the exploits of Rosa Hubermann. She also explained how proud she was that she could now read and write a little.

Zusak, why must you break my heart like this? The poor girl. I can’t imagine having the patience to write six drafts of a letter to anyone now, let alone back when I was only just learning to read. Talking to her mother means so much to her.

But she doesn’t even get peaceful dreams, because this is what she overhears in bed:
“What’s she doing writing to her mother?” Mama was saying. Her voice was surprisingly calm and caring. As you can imagine, this worried the girl a great deal. She’d have preferred to hear them arguing. Whispering adults hardly inspired confidence.

“She asked me,” Papa answered, “and I couldn’t say no. How could I?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Again with the whisper. “She should just forget her. Who knows where she is? Who knows what they’ve done to her?”

OH MY GOD, THIS IS SO HORRIBLE! My props to you, Mr. Zusak. This all feels so real and vivid. It’s bad enough she lost her brother forever, it’s not enough she knows next to nothing about her father and where she is, her mother is probably being tortured by Nazis, right now. And she doesn’t even have a clue why!

There are certain things in books that are so strange and mysterious that I just beg to turn the pages because it’s no longer just a passive reading experience. It feels as real to me as anything in my life because I literally can’t believe what I’m reading and I honestly don’t have a clue what’s happening and what lies ahead. And I have to get back to the book because my whole mind is alive with wondering “Why? What does this mean? What is going to happen?”

What is a tesseract? What did it mean to Mrs. Murry, and how does this strange woman have a connection with that and with something that obviously meant something to Meg’s mother? Who and what is this mysterious Mrs. Whatsit, anyhow? And why is Charles Wallace so strange?

Why does Snape have such an irrational and inexplicable hatred of Harry?

Why does Moody seem to have a bad history with Igor Karkaroff?

And now:

Where was she?

What had they done to her?  

And once and for all, who, in actual fact, were they?

I WANT TO KNOW!

DEAD LETTERS

Okay, seriously, this book just gets more and more bizarre!

Flash forward to the basement, September 1943.

No, I’m not kidding. A FLASH-FORWARD. Two years before Lost made flash-forwards a thing! I mean, I never watched Lost, but even I know about them only from there. Did they steal the idea from this book?

And you know how I said before this book is obviously made to be re-read? Well, now I’m not even sure it was meant to be read the first time around at all. I mean, we’re getting a glimpse 3 years into the future. It’s hard to imagine how much would have happened to change the plot by then. And yet we don’t get much indication of these changes. We learn only 6 things about where we’ll be in September 1943:

  1. Liesel will still be alive at 14 years old, and in fairly good health, “bony but strong“.
  2. Hans will also still be alive, seemingly in good health. He will still have his accordion.
  3. Nothing will have happened to separate Hans and Liesel. I’m so happy to know this.
  4. Liesel will not get a reply to her letter or hear back from her mother at all in 1940.
  5. Liesel has a book to write in at this point.
  6. Other than that, nothing. We are told Liesel “has seen many things“, but the only other hint of things to come is the line “He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be.” Does this mean Hans got plaster in his leg or is it a hint that they’re in a different basement than the Hubermann household’s? Because all we know about their location is that they’re in a basement.

Something we forget about books is they’re often written out of chronological order, just as movies are filmed out of chronological order. I have never read any book that so blatantly showed that as this one. In fact, it’s the only book that made me feel I’m reading it out of chronological order! If I wasn’t doing this book for the blog, I would be sorely tempted to skip 200 or 300 pages ahead and finish the book from there, or start reading the book backwards, just to see if it would make as much sense.

What’s interesting is that this is about the time (nearly 4 years after early November 1939) Death mentioned Rudy confessing to Liesel that he was worried about her “kicking him in the eggs” like she did to Ludwig Schmeikl. One thing I haven’t acknowledged is that flash-forwards and hinting at things to come really are neat gimmicks that most authors won’t dare use. (Though a cliche in television. Mad Men’s “Seven Twenty Three” is one of the only uses there that felt like an actual form of artistic expression.) So it’ll be very fun to see Zusak take us to these points and get context and satisfaction at having reached there.

For now, we don’t even need the flashback, because it just goes back to Hans sympathizing with Liesel in the present (if you can call it that) when she didn’t receive any reply.

In hindsight, she saw that the whole exercise had been pointless. Had her mother been in a position to do so, she would have already made contact with the foster care people, or directly with the girl, or the Hubermanns. But there had been nothing.

And what happened to her? Liesel isn’t a Jew, she’s a Lutheran like my late great-grandfather going on 30 in America, so why is her mother in trouble? Her father was apparently a Communist so perhaps his mother has vanished for the same reasons as him. So will this tie to Communism then make up the base of the conflict for Liesel as the war goes on?

Zusak/Death have made it clear how horrible it is for her, not knowing or understanding anything even at the levels we know and can insinuate. And it only gets worse:

To lend insult to injury, in mid-February, Liesel was given a letter from another ironing customer, the Pfaffelhürvers, from Heide Strasse. The pair of them stood with great tallness in the doorway, giving her a melancholic regard. “For your mama,” the man said, handing her the envelope. “Tell her we’re sorry. Tell her we’re sorry.”

And again there was no build-up for this as Rosa’s only real complaint against them was that they inspected the returned laundry carefully in front of her. Also, Liesel has written FIVE LETTERS. The heartbreak just gets worse!

Having shown a shot of 14-year-old Liesel, Zusak now speeds up the narrative to Liesel’s 11th birthday in presumably March of 1940. (I thought this created a chronology mistake in terms of Liesel’s age, but no, Zusak obviously edited this book well.) She gets no present because Hans spent that money on the books for Christmas. Misery from apparent happiness, indeed!

She simply swallowed the disappointment and decided on one calculated risk – a present from herself. She would gather all of the accrued letters to her mother, stuff them into one envelope, and use just a tiny portion of the washing and ironing money to mail it. Then, of course, she would take the Watschen, most likely in the kitchen, and she would not make a sound.

Good God, I want to reach through the book and stop this poor girl from doing this to herself! Something good does come out of it, though, in terms of the insight she receives once she’s sent the letters and admitted it to Rosa, who responds amicably by savagely beating her with a wooden spoon:

What came to her then was the dustiness of the floor, the feeling that her clothes were more next to her than on her, and the sudden realization that this would all be for nothing – that her mother would never write back and she would never see her again. The reality of this gave her a second Watschen. It stung her, and it did not stop for many minutes.

It really is amazing how vivid Zusak’s writing is. He conveys every iota of Liesel’s emotion and makes the reader feel in her place, desperate scared and alone, sprawled out on the floor for almost an hour, so miserable that Rosa even apologizes to her. I can relate to that. There are times when you’re so depressed and horrified you just have to curl up and hide in your own separate world, where no one can hurt you except your own mind, for there is nothing to do but ponder, ponder the hopelessness in an empty void.

In the way, there is an effect of watching a movie play out in front of us, actually, as we now hear Death’s narration coming in to give a scholarly analysis of the situation, with the perspective of time.

Liesel found some interesting food for thought, in reflecting on that time:

No matter how many times she tried to imagine that scene with the yellow light that she knew had been there, she had to struggle to visualize it. She was beaten in the dark, and she had remained there, on a cold, dark kitchen floor. Even Papa’s music was the color of darkness.

Even Papa’s music.

The strange thing was that she was vaguely comforted by that thought, rather than distressed by it.

The dark, the light.

What was the difference?

This is obviously a very meaningful passage. I suppose the idea is the fact that many children, and even some adults harbor a fear of the dark. I know I did for many years as a child, to the point I would make my mother leave the light on in the bathroom. I grew out of that, though, and I never understood why. You could say it was because I matured. But nowadays, I actually like the dark, due to the effect and eerie mood it creates. I’m writing this in the dark late into the wee hours of the morning, with no light but the computer monitor in front of me. And I don’t feel any safer than if the light were on. At any moment I can close my eyes tightly shut, and there is no change in my surroundings.

Because I have grown up, and seen the world the way it is. There’s no one who’s going to hurt me in the dark, and there’s no one who’s going to hurt me in the light. But if there was they could do it in the light just as easily as in the dark. Misery has come to Liesel out of happiness, and misery of her brother’s death came to Liesel out of the misery of having to say goodbye to her mother. Liesel has reached that coming-of-age moment, too. She’s 11, and this is the time encapsulated well in “Where the Wild Things Are”, when the world seems more complex and confusing, when you are not yet grown, not yet a teen, but well on your way and not quite a child anymore, either.

Nightmares had reinforced themselves in each, as the book thief began to truly understand how things were and how they would always be. If nothing else, she could prepare herself. Perhaps that’s why on the Führer‘s birthday, when the answer to the question of her mother’s suffering showed itself completely, she was able to react, despite her perplexity and her rage.

Liesel Meminger was ready.

Happy birthday, Herr Hitler.

Many happy returns.

I’m sorry if I don’t always act like it, but I really am just in love with the prose of this book. It’s bewitching, and in my first reading of the end of this chapter it simply captivated me, weaving me into a daze right to the finish. Re-reading it here, I find I could probably read it many more times and never get tired of it.

I saw my mother recently before I started working on this post or reading Part Two, and we had a long conversation about books and movies. Unfortunately she liked Water for Elephants a lot (though did thankfully acknowledge the ending to be “sentimental claptrap”), and found The Secret Garden such a slog she has no real memory of it, but we can agree on The Book Thief. I can’t post her reactions like I did for my aunt, because we didn’t actually read or discuss any of the book despite the fact that it was sitting right in front of us the whole time we talked.

But she said that she did like it. She mentioned how undeserving Stephen King is of the scorn he often receives, Misery being so vivid and descriptive she found herself admitting to a friend who wanted to know if she’d seen the movie (then in theaters) that she really didn’t know. I asked if she felt The Book Thief was one of those books with such vivid writing that puts you in the scene, and she after a moment’s thought, nodded her head and said “Yes I’d have to say it was.”

And I have to agree. It really is fantastic writing, and I like how Zusak is telling us this story from a definite future perspective, and yet we still are very involved in the action as he parcels it out, plays with our emotions, and teases what’s to come. Also… we’re going to find out what happened to Liesel’s mother! I’m glad he spoiled that bit of information!

I mean, sure, it’ll be horrible, but still…………


 

A funny story: My mom doesn’t read book titles on her Kindle or any information about a book because she likes to be completely surprised. Consequently she had actually started another book whose name she didn’t remember, and believed it was The Book Thief, so she was talking to my sister about it in great detail, and said she didn’t know why it was called The Book Thief because well, no book thievery had come up. Then when she realized the mistake, she stopped to ask why her daughter, who had read the book herself, hadn’t explained to her she had the wrong book when she went on and on about things that had never happened. “You never listen to me at all, do you! Just in one ear and out the other!”

(I will note she also loves Pride and Prejudice, it’s one of her favorite books, and apparently one of my brother’s, too. So apologies to any Australians named Daniel for bringing up people with such bad taste. She hasn’t read Gatsby.)

I’d like to open this post by retracting some things I said in my last review:
I think I was way off base in claiming it was really romantic attraction. At the age of 10, it was probably merely a childhood curiosity, and I feel I demonstrated a poor understanding of child psychology there. But then that isn’t my forte, is it?

Also for some reason I thought Liesel was a Jew. I am such an idiot. Seriously I was considering going back and removing that.

So we will now enter Chapter 5 of Part One:

THE JESSE OWENS INCIDENT

I didn’t mention it in the last post, but this “incident” was actually mentioned in the previous chapter in the “SOME FACTS ABOUT RUDY STEINER” segment:

On Himmel Street, he was considered a little crazy.

This was on account of an event that was rarely spoken about but widely

regarded as “The Jesse Owens Incident,” in which he painted himself

charcoal black and ran the 100 meters at the local playing field one

night.

 

And considering we were also told he was obsessed with Jesse Owens, we already have a pretty good idea of what happened and why.

So obviously we must ask ourselves what purpose Zusak intends in returning to the incident and giving it a full chapter in his book.

The chapter begins promisingly enough:

As we both know, Liesel wasn’t on hand on Himmel Street when Rudy performed his act of childhood infamy. When she looked back, though, it felt like she’d actually been there. In her memory, she had somehow become a member of Rudy’s imaginary audience. Nobody else mentioned it, but Rudy certainly made up for that, so much that when Liesel came to recollect her story, the Jesse Owens incident was as much a part of it as everything she witnessed firsthand.

This is something I can relate to very strongly myself, because I remember the night my brother’s car was broken into and robbed by a drunken man in his late twenties as well as if I were there, even though I only heard my mother tell the story the next day (or the same day, considering it happened early in the morning). But she told it so well it felt like I was there. In fact, I think she was a better storyteller than Zusak. And I’d like to tell you the whole story myself because it’s actually very funny and very interesting, perhaps more so than this chapter. But no, I’m off track already.

So…. Zusak starts it off by giving us some historical perspective:

It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitler’s games.

Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 x 100m relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand were touted around the world. Even the most racist Germans were amazed with the efforts of Owens, and word of his feat slipped through the cracks.

This helps to explain why Jesse Owens was important and who he was. (Personally, when I hear his name I automatically think of the scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little says “And now for my next impression…. Jesse Owens” and runs like hell. Sorry, I just had to say that.)

But there isn’t all too much surprising or new about the story until Rudy finishes his race and is “on his victory lap,” as he would have it.

The narrative becomes lost in Rudy’s childhood imagination up to this point, and once his father finds him, it’s easy to see why.

We get a vivid picture of Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, that shows us that Zusak has a good understanding of the kind of individual that lived in Germany. Sure, these people did support Hitler, but it was more complicated than that and they weren’t just cookie-cutter bad guys.

Remember what I was saying about how times seem so simple when you’re a child but they really aren’t? Well, Zusak really hammers that theme into our heads here.

Rudy obviously is not racist or anti-Semitic. In fact, he can’t understand such a thing. Can’t even begin to fathom what being Jewish means, in fact.

If the book has been lost in childhood whimsy and trivialities, Zusak makes sure we know why as he ends this chapter on a particular dire note:

They walked on in silence for a while, until Rudy said, “I just wish I was like Jesse Owens, papa.”

This time, Mr. Steiner placed his hand on Rudy’s head and explained, “I know, son-but you’ve got beautiful blond hair and big, safe blue eyes. You should be happy with that; is that clear?”

But nothing was clear.

Rudy understood nothing, and that night was the prelude of things to come. Two and a half years later, the Kaufmann Shoe Shop was reduced to broken glass, and all the shoes were flung aboard a truck in their boxes.

Note that “two and a half years later” is at this point very soon to come, if it hasn’t actually happened already. Zusak is sending us a very strong message here: “Enjoy the moments of happiness I give you. It’s all about to go to hell, and you know that and I’m not letting you deny it.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER

Compounding his cruelty he then proceeds to give us the date: “late May 1939.” Only 3 months left left until the war. Things are normal at the Hubermann household now, but already dire politics are coming into play:

Earlier, there had been a parade.

The brown-shirted extremist members of the NSDAP (otherwise known as the Nazi Party) had marched down Munich Street, their banners worn proudly, their faces held high, as if on sticks. Their voices were full of song, culminating in a roaring rendition of “Deutschland über Alles.” “Germany over Everything.”

As always, they were clapped.

They were spurred on as they walked to who knows where.

People on the street stood and watched, some with straight-armed salutes, others with hands that burned from applause.

We do have one thing to make us feel better, though:

*** SOME CRUNCHED NUMBERS ***

In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching

support for Adolf Hitler.

That leaves 10 percent who didn’t.

Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent.

There was a reason for that.

It’s because he is a flawless, wonderful paragon of humanity. Sorry, but I just love him more and more on every page. Seriously, that is not an exaggeration!

And he gets the chance to prove this as Liesel’s nightmares sadly get worse:

When she woke up screaming, Liesel knew immediately that on this occasion, something had changed. A smell leaked out from under the sheets, warm and sickly. At first, she tried convincing herself that nothing had happened, but as Papa came closer and held her, she cried and admitted the fact in his ear.

Liesel’s experience really was a traumatic thing for a 10-year-old girl to go through, so I’m glad the effects are shown to be so severe. Also, bed-wetting is often shown as something funny to laugh at people for in pop culture, so it’s nice to see it portrayed in a sympathetic light.

He teases, however, that something bigger is to come from this:

A black book with silver writing on it came hurtling out and landed on the floor, between the tall man’s feet.

He looked down at it.

He looked at the girl, who timidly shrugged.

Then expertly defuses the tension:

*** A 2 A.M. CONVERSATION ***

“Is this yours?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Do you want to read it?”

Again, “Yes, Papa.”

A tired smile.

Metallic eyes, melting.

“Well, we’d better read it, then.”

So he changes it from the threat of something bad happening, to something nice as Hans uses the book to teach her to read.

We also have some foreshadowing:

You wouldn’t think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me to read. It was Papa. People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion…

I wonder if Zusak finished the book, then went back and arbitrarily sprinkled hints of what was to come, just to mess with us.

I hope this isn’t foreshadowing, though, at least:

He ran a hand through his sleepy hair and said, “Well, promise me one thing, Liesel. If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right.”

She nodded, with great sincerity.

“No skipping chapter six or step four in chapter nine.” He laughed, as did the bed wetter.

I’m actually the sort of individual strange and morbid enough who tends to like the idea of killing off characters in order to create drama, be more realistic, break rules, and see what the world would be like without them (and also because there’s a Tarantino side to my brain which I try my best to tame). I tend to find people who hate authors for killing their favorite characters stupid and immature. But in this case…….

PLEASE DON’T KILL HANS HUBERMANN, MARKUS. PLEASE DON’T KILL HIM. I WILL DO ANYTHING, ANYTHING. I WILL OFFER YOU MY FIRST-BORN SON, RUMPELSTILTSKIN. I WILL BE YOUR LIFELONG SLAVE. JUST DON’T – KILL – HANS – HUBERMANN.

And in fact, it’s surprising for a book narrated by Death, that the rest of this chapter is so light, funny, warm, and altogether human. Zusak and Death may have their similarities, but Zusak is pretty good at distancing himself ultimately. The fact that the rest of the chapter revolves around Liesel being taught the alphabet is clearly necessary to explain her stealing books and telling her story.

Also, I watched the Masterpiece Theater film “Goodnight Mr. Tom” last night and it’s amazing how many similarities there are between that and this book.

Both are set on the onset of World War II, feature a child having to go live with a stranger, and their foster father finding that they have wet the bed, which they handle in a fairly business-like fashion without embarrassing the child. The child also later in the story loses his sibling and has nightmares.
In particular, passages like this (As they progressed through the alphabet, Liesel’s eyes grew larger. She had done this at school, in the kindergarten class, but this time was better. She was the only one there, and she was not gigantic.)

make me convinced Zusak watched that movie or read the book because there is a scene ridiculously similar to this where Tom is teaching the child the alphabet in the same way Hans is here after the child is, in his own words, “put in with the babies” due to his inability to read.

I realize I have no way of proving Zusak ever saw Goodnight, Mister Tom and it doesn’t really matter in any case. But I just had to say that because there were too many similarities.

I was more surprised that for his “*** A TYPICAL HANS HUBERMANN ARTWORK ***,” he includes an actual drawing that someone would sketch,

rather than his “photos” before. Probably because it’s a crude stick painting, so it wouldn’t be that difficult to visualize it. He does seem to like to challenge himself with his descriptions.

The chapter does close with some beautiful writing:

In the darkness, Liesel kept her eyes open. She was watching the words.

THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP

This was a hard chapter to write about. I love it. In fact, when I visited my aunt I read it to her apart from any of the chapters (giving a brief synopsis of what had happened) when I visited her and she said it was very good writing and hoped she could borrow the book from me when I had finished.

And yet there’s not much to say about it.

Liesel keeps having nightmares and Hans keeps being awesome.

Honestly, Zusak is really endearing us to these characters. I feel like they’re people I know and we’re so early in. There’s a fun little battle of wills between Hans and Rosa as she wants Liesel to deliver the ironing with her, so Hans and Liesel deliver it and do their lessons at the same time.1

Then we get some more foreshadowing of Hans’ story:

*** PAPA’S FACE ***

It traveled and wondered,

but it disclosed no answers.

Not yet. 2

There had been a change in him. A slight shift.

She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story. 3

Zusak is great at making you read on. Honestly, I feel like I’m reading something written by a virtuoso in the art of writing.

In particular, I have to include this, because it’s hilarious:

When the weather was good, they’d go to the Amper in the afternoon. In bad weather, it was the basement. This was mainly on account of Mama. At first, they tried in the kitchen, but there was no way.

“Rosa,” Hans said to her at one point. Quietly, his words cut through one of her sentences. “Could you do me a favor?”

She looked up from the stove. “What?”

“I’m asking you, I’m begging you, could you please shut your mouth for just five minutes?”

You can imagine the reaction.

They ended up in the basement. 4

Liesel is making great progress in her reading lessons and the chapter ends with her thinking about how much she loves Hans in a passage I read in bed right before I fell asleep after a warm candle-lit bath, which is exactly the way it should be read:

“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”

Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her.

We need to form a Hans Hubermann Appreciation Society. Seriously, this man is THE BEST.

Aaaand that’s it! You see? There’s not much I can say about it. Nothing much happens. It basically serves the purpose of endearing us to the characters and making us care about them more. But like I said before I wish more books would have nice conflict-limited moments like this and that’s the problem: I find myself repeating what I’ve said before the way I did in my Casual Vacancy reviews. Like when I said the book is surprisingly warm. In fact, my aunt was shocked when I told her it was narrated by Death the next day!

Zusak is a master at audience manipulation, I suppose.

THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE SCHOOL YARD

Further evidence of this can be seen in the opening of this passage. He allowed us to know it was a few weeks into June 1939 and he had let us savor every bit of peace and pre-war bliss we can have. So with the first sentence of the following chapter he teases us:

The summer of ’39 was in a hurry, or perhaps Liesel was.

And he then proceeds to summarize that yes, Liesel’s life went on as normal and things were going well for her and says “It felt like it was over a few days after it began“. It’s as if he’s saying “Sorry for boring you with all that in the first place,” because he knows readers have been trained to love conflict and misery. The moments when characters are having fun and being happy are the dull parts, the boring parts where we must wait for things to get interesting. So he will oblige, Mr. Zusak, as he pretends not to notice we are begging him to do anything else.

So he cheerfully hurls this at us:

In the latter part of the year, two things happened.

*** SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER 1939 ***

1. World War Two begins.

2. Liesel Meminger becomes the heavyweight

champion of the school yard.

As we stare, our mouths aghast in horror, without a clue how to react to this (With joy that the conflict is beginning? How can we? And how can we not?), he goes on, letting Death revel in the little details, reminding us humans did plenty of that ourselves, then he concludes with:

To steal a phrase from Hans Hubermann:

The fun begins.

And I’m sitting here leaning back in my chair my mouth gaping in horror, emotionally drained in less than a page and a half.

And there are FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY SIX PAGES left, and I’m not sure I want to read them!*

As I read on, Zusak builds up the tension to an agonizing extreme and turns us into sadists:

By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo. Holding the shirt open, he looked down in the unsure kitchen light.

“What does it say?” Liesel asked him. She was looking back and forth, from the black outlines on his skin to the paper.

I feel like my heart is about to lunge out of my chest.

“Hitler takes Poland,” he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair. “Deutschland über Alles,” he whispered, and his voice was not remotely patriotic.

I’m sorry, I-I just can’t stop myself from crying. This is perfect.

That was one war started.

Liesel would soon be in another.

WHAT?

WHAT ON EARTH DOES THAT MEAN?

Nearly a month after school resumed, she was moved up to her rightful year level. 

XD

You might think this was due to her improved reading, but it wasn’t. 

:(

Despite the advancement, she still read with great difficulty. Sentences were strewn everywhere. Words fooled her. The reason she was elevated had more to do with the fact that she became disruptive in the younger class. She answered questions directed to other children and called out. A few times, she was given what was known as a Watschen (pronounced “varchen”) in the corridor. 

***  A DEFINITION ***

Watschen = a good hiding

What? No! This – is – not – FAIR.

She was taken up, put in a chair at the side, and told to keep her mouth shut by the teacher, who also happened to be a nun. At the other end of the classroom, Rudy looked across and waved. Liesel waved back and tried not to smile.
…..
She thought it was enough. It was not enough.

I hate you, Markus Zusak. I HATE YOU.

A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the way – I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.)

This book is the most bizarre and horrible thing ever written. And I love it.

Throughout the test, Liesel sat with a mixture of hot anticipation and excruciating fear. She wanted desperately to measure herself, to find out once and for all how her learning was advancing. Was she up to it? Could she even come close to Rudy and the rest of them? 

Edge of my seat here.

Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesel’s ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon, it would be around her neck, thick as rope. 

GODDAMN IT! Stop doing this to me, Zusak who is Death!

“Very good.” Sister Maria nodded, perusing the list. “That’s everyone.” 

Phew.

What?
“No!” 

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A voice practically appeared on the other side of the room. Attached to it was a lemon-haired boy whose bony knees knocked in his pants under the desk. He stretched his hand up and said, “Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel.” 

What?
No!

Sister Maria.
Was not impressed. 

<jaw drops> <falls out of chair>

The teacher looked across, for confirmation. “She will read for me later.”
The girl cleared her throat and spoke with quiet defiance. “I can do it now, Sister.” 

And thus begins the greatest exercise in tension ever!

When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.

I’m right there with you, Liesel. Seriously, I’m in a daze. Is this book real?

*** A KEY WORD ***

Imagined

FUCK YOU,

MARKUS

ZUSAK.

FUCK YOU

100,000,000

TIMES!

Breathing, breathing, she started to read, but not from the book in front of her. It was something from The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Chapter three: “In the Event of Snow.” She’d memorized it from her papa’s voice.

“In the event of snow,” she spoke, “you must make sure you use a good shovel. You must dig deep; you cannot be lazy. You cannot cut corners.”

Oh my God, this is amazing.

It ended.

The book was snatched from her grasp and she was told.

“Liesel-the corridor.”

As she was given a small Watschen, she could hear them all laughing in the classroom, between Sister Maria’s striking hand. She saw them. All those mashed children. Grinning and laughing. Bathed in sunshine. Everyone laughing but Rudy.

This book should be used as an instrument of torture. I can’t stand this any longer.

In the break, she was taunted. A boy named Ludwig Schmeikl came up to her with a book. “Hey, Liesel,” he said to her, “I’m having trouble with this word. Could you read it for me?” He laughed- a ten-year-old, smugness laughter.

“You Dummkopf-you idiot.”

GODDAMN IT, YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP RIGHT NOW YOU STUPID FUCKING GODDAMN SHITHEAD IDIOT LOATHSOME ABOMINABLE WASTE OF SPACE PIECE OF SHIT BOY!

Nearing the end of the break, the tally of comments stood up at nineteen. By the twentieth, she snapped. It was Schmeikl, back for more. “Come on, Liesel.” He stuck the book under her nose. “Help me out, will you?”

FUCK YOU FUCK YOU you fuckin motherfucker fuck you TO THE POWER OF ONE HUNDRED!!!

Liesel helped him out, all right.

 

 

 

OH HOLY SHIT FUCK YEAH!!!!!

She stood up and took the book from him, and as he smiled over his shoulder at some other kids, she threw it away and kicked him as hard as she could in the vicinity of the groin.

<GRINS> OH YEAAAAH.


Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who was utterly consumed with rage. 


FUCK YEAH! MOTHERFUCKER YOU ARE BEING OOOOWNED! <FIST BUMP DE AIR>

His skin was so warm and soft. Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. “You Saukerl.” Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. “You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”

can you feel the burn can you can you cause you see Liesel Meminger SHE FUCKIN AWWWESOME………

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” a girl commentated with a shriek, “she’s going to kill him!”
Liesel did not kill him.
But she came close.
In fact, probably the only thing that stopped her was the twitchingly ugly, pathetic face of Tommy Müller. Still crowded with adrenaline, Liesel caught sight of him smiling with such absurdity that she dragged him down and started beating
 him up as well.

hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha


“What are you doing?!” he wailed


 

HA HA HA LIESEL MEMINGER IS GIVIN’ YOU THE NO HOLDS BARRED BEATING OF A LIFETIME, BOYS! OH YEAAAAAAAH!

On her knees, she sucked in the air and listened to the groans beneath her. She watched the whirlpool of faces, left and right, and she announced, “I’m not stupid.”
No one argued.

………………………….. (mouth open) …………………………………………………………

Ladies and gentlemen, please give us a great big round of applause for the heavy-weight champion of November 1939 and the world’s biggest female badass since Mary Lennox stood up to Colin Craven way back in 1911, Miss Liesel Meminger! YOU RULE! YOU FUCKING RUUUULE GIRLFRIEND. DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO WHOO-HOO. WHOO-HOO.

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAAA……

“The corridor,” she stated for the second time that day. For the second time that hour, actually.
This time, it was not a small 
Watschen. It was not an average one. This time, it was the mother of all corridor Watschens, one sting of the stick after another, so that Liesel would barely be able to sit down for a week.

I did know this was coming. I just didn’t want to admit it. Because this is what does happen, sadly to say. On my last post, I received the following explanation for a passage I did not understand as “in the larger scheme, we all are doing what we are told to do.” I certainly did understand how that theme is shown here due largely to my own life. There are clear parallels between Liesel and the nun, who are each telling someone what to do and the frustrating beyond aggravating thing that I have pondered for years is that unopposed Sister Maria can assert the same force of justice and she can’t. If Liesel deserved a beating, why didn’t those two boys? But if there’s no higher power to stop you you can do whatever you want and this is likely to form the main conflict of the entire book since this is what kept Hitler in power until 1945.

And there was no laughter from the room. More the silent fear of listening in.

So I’m glad Zusak gives us that. Because it’s true. They knew she knew the consequences and maybe if she’s gotten the worst she has nothing more to lose. So she’ll just let herself have it again and again. So you’d better leave her alone.

Not….
“Sitting in a car with you is like sitting in a car with Lord Voldemort.”
“I think we might tell Mom you said that.”

<awkward shuffling> repeat repeat >AWKWARD SHUFFLING>

The chapter ends solemnly as Liesel and Rudy walk home.

Nearing Himmel Street, in a hurry of thoughts, a culmination of misery swept over her – the failed recital of The Grave Digger’s Handbook, the demolition of her family, her nightmares, the humiliation of the day – and she crouched in the gutter and wept. It all led here.

Things were going well for her. I thought Zusak was being so kind in giving her a nice family she could be happy with instead of the cruel one I had expected, a friend, reading lessons. But no, we couldn’t have that. He really does know how to depict human feelings, doesn’t he? Perfectly.

When finally she finished and stood herself up, he put his arm around her, best-buddy style, and they walked on. There was no request for a kiss. Nothing like that. You can love Rudy for that, if you like.

Oh, I do. I apologize for everything I said to you earlier, Rudy.

And I just want to fall to my knees and weep, too, because I just humiliated myself over the entire Internet and you can’t even begin to know why. My sisters bullied me constantly growing up. They would just sit in the kitchen making fun of me for no reason – I lost it one time, beat them, went on a rampage tearing the house apart – then they ran upstairs and I just sat down on the floor and waited. Then she came down without a word, just that glare of absolute fury on her face as she walked past the wreckage I had strewn in her house.

She grabbed me by the hair and she took me upstairs.

I told her one time – I told her “I can’t take it.” She told me “You better”.

I was smacked over the head with a shoe one time. I went right upstairs to her room. “What did you do to them?”

Why can’t life be fair? Maybe it was for me, when she told me I could stop coming over because of them. But I’m not sure she meant it, because she kept on saying it just to make me quit whining. Even though I wasn’t whining. She took my property away from me, made her stupid ignorant assumptions – “You wanted to give this mean note they wrote to you to your dad so he’d believe you?” Why couldn’t she tell them off? Why did she have to patronize me? Why was it always me? Fuck her. Fuck life. I just got through reading The Secret Garden. Why can’t crazy, happy, ridiculous endings like that happen in real life?

And I thought it would be worse. I thought the last page would be Hans and Rosa talking to Liesel about it, and then I read it and I still thought that. I literally forgot I had finished the chapter. I don’t know what this book has done to me and I’ve barely even started.

Guys, this is my book. All right? Mine. You may have read it first, but this is mine. You can’t have it.

For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.

This book is one of the best I have ever read and I hate it so much. It has become undeniably clear that Markus Zusak is the greatest literary sadist of all time. I mean, MY GOD, what kind of demented evil human being enjoys torturing their own characters this much? And we’re not even a hundred pages in yet! 9 parts left plus an epilogue and frankly I’m not sure I feel I can continue.


 

Aunt’s reaction to The Book Thief: Chapter 11

  1. After I read the first section, “Well, these do seem like interesting people to spend time with.”
    “Saumensch dreckiges, you never hear anything!” She laughed. “She has hearing problems, too.”
    After the second section, I explained, “That’s their strange way of bonding.” She said, “Oh, she enjoys doing that task for him.”
  2. I explained “The author has a lot of little quirks like this.”
    She said, “Oh, like stage directions.”
  3. I also stopped to explain that he likes to do foreshadowing like this. She said nothing.
  4. She laughed, “Oh, dear!”
    She laughed at the grave book line, and I explained a bit about that history to her.
    She stopped at “Papa dispensed with the sandpaper” to ask if they were using sandpaper for the purpose they were. I said yes, and read on. I explained he was a house painter.
    And you already know her conclusion.
    “Well, that was very nice writing. I think I might have to rent that from you at some point.”

This book is very similar to The Casual Vacancy in the regard that it has a very unusual structure and I wasn’t initially sure how to handle that. It is divided into parts like The Casual Vacancy, but unlike The Casual Vacancy, it actually is formatted into chapters with titles, no less! The chapters are of varying lengths and I was pretty confident I should not post one chapter a day because I want to be more efficient than that, considering just how many chapters there are and how short a lot of them are.

I could post my reading of 1 part per day, but many are so long in total I didn’t feel I was up to that. I recognize that I did that for The Casual Vacancy, but look at how long it took me to finish that book! Also I want to try something different. You see, the book is divided into 10 parts, each containing 8 chapters, except for the epilogue, which contains half that amount (the book being 88 chapters and 548 pages in total). So I will be writing these in the form of 4 chapters per post, taking 2 posts to complete a chapter. The epilogue will of course be all in one post, same as the prologue.

Now let’s proceed with Part One!

It is titled “the grave digger’s handbook” and the subtitle is

featuring:

himmel street – the art of saumensching – an ironfisted woman – a kiss attempt – jesse owens – sandpaper – the smell of friendship – a heavyweight champion – and the mother of all watschens

This is a very skilled author at getting you to buy his book if you’re skimming around the aisle, continually tantalizing you with all these mysterious elements. And that’s probably why I’ve been hearing about this book for years. In fact, it’s strange I waited this long to read it.

(One note: According to my German-to-English translator, “saumensch” means “sow pig” and when I googled it I found out that is an insult. And “watschen” means “slap in the face”. So apparently people are going to get insulted and slapped in the face. This should be fun. Let’s proceed.)

ARRIVAL ON HIMMEL STREET

Death begins by taking us back to the scene where he first met “the book thief”.

We got only a description of the aftermath of the boy’s death the first time around, where we had already come in late. So now Zusak stops being vague and portrays the full incident for us in detail. Well, sort of, after writing brief summaries like this.

***  A SPECTULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT ***

A train was moving quickly.

It was packed with humans.

A six-year-old boy died in the third carriage. 

I can’t help but feel that there is a bit too much style-over-substance going on in Zusak’s writing, because he follows this by saying, “We now know, of course, that the boy didn’t make it.” Yes, you’ve told us that three times now.

But this of course is my attempt at being an objective critic. As a reader, I’m only a little ashamed to admit that I’m terribly enjoying the whole way this book is written.

And I admit that once he’s through with the idiosyncratic summaries, descriptions like this are very chilling, insightful and well-written:

When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.

And we then learn the characters’ names:

With one eye open, one still in a dream, the book thief-also known as Liesel Meminger-could see without question that her younger brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead.

We also get this shocking bit of information:

Prior to waking up, the book thief was dreaming about the Führer, Adolf Hitler. In the dream, she was attending a rally at which he spoke, looking at the skull-colored part in his hair and the perfect square of his mustache. She was listening contentedly to the torrent of words spilling from his mouth. His sentences glowed in the light.

That’s right, our main character is a little girl who worships Hitler. Well, now I have nothing but respect for Markus Zusak because I doubt there are many authors in the world who would be able to get away with this and have us accept it. I especially love that this isn’t played as a big deal at all, and nothing about the Nazi Party is even mentioned again in the rest of the chapter.

Then we get another info dump (and Zusak explains that the boy died for the fifth time, perhaps because his editors insisted that prologue was SO confusing):

It was January 1939. She was nine years old, soon to be ten.

So this takes place before World War II, then, and before Hitler committed his worst atrocities! Yeah, that’s probably the only way this could have been published, isn’t it?

I think Death’s detachment and somewhat sarcastic wit is explained here. He simply can’t understand human emotions.

And the shaking.

Why do they always shake them?

Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud so loud.

We are then taken to the point where we left off and learn that the guards took Liesel and her mother with the corpse to the next township and left them there.

The narrative then begins moving quickly as we go to Liesel attending her brother’s funeral, where we get this absolutely baffling bit of foreshadowing:

*** AN OBSERVATION ***

A pair of train guards.

A pair of grave diggers.

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?

This book is obviously made to be re-read, because I don’t have a clue what events this is leading up to in the plot.

For two days, I went about my business. I traveled the globe as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity. I watched them trundle passively on. Several times, I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger’s brother. I did not heed my advice.

But why? Death just told us that he had been capturing countless souls. So why does the incident with Liesel’s brother mean something to him? What is drawing him to Liesel when this is only the first time he’s met her at this point?

I like that Zusak acknowledges that humans in these times can get just as detached as Death, in disturbing passages like this:

Standing to Liesel’s left, the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions. “So hard getting through all the ice,” and so forth. One of them couldn’t have been more than fourteen. An apprentice.

FOURTEEN! My God, I couldn’t imagine being fourteen and having to have this job. I’m so glad I wasn’t alive at this time to deal with all this death. I mean, I did my best to avoid looking at my poor adoptive grandfather’s corpse just a year and a few months ago!

Zusak shows he, however, is not really as emotionally detached as Death as he portrays Liesel’s heart wrenching emotional reaction at her brother’s funeral. (I remember sinking onto the couch in a side room emotionally drained after only a few minutes at my step-grandfather’s funeral service.)

But here’s an interesting development!

*** A SMALL IMAGE, PERHAPS ***

TWENTY METERS AWAY

When the dragging was done, the mother and

the girl stood and breathed.

There was something black and rectangular

lodged in the snow.

Only the girl saw it.

She bent down and picked it up and

held it firmly in her fingers.

The book had silver writing on it.

The book was dropped by the gravedigger on the previous page. I would have mentioned it then, but I didn’t want to disrupt the flow of what I was talking about.

We also get an idea of some of her personal insights (a bit ala Anne Frank?) contained in that book:

In the written words of the book thief herself, the journey continued like everything had happened.

But now I’m confused. Death said at the end of the prologue this was Liesel’s book. So why is it still being narrated by Death like this when it should have changed to the detailing of events that Liesel wrote? And Death said he saw her 3 times, so why does Werner’s funeral not count? In fact, I believe these may just be inconsistencies, and I’m not going to excuse Zusak for that.

Also, though I like his “as if from a torn package” imagery, this comparison annoys me:

The impoverished always try to keep moving, as if relocating might help. They ignore the reality that a new version of the same old problem will be waiting at the end of the trip-the relative you cringe to kiss.

Sorry, I think people in these circumstances have bigger problems than not wanting to kiss one of their relatives. FYI.

But now we get this very tear jerking goodbye, as Liesel leaves her mother at the train platform to go off to live with her foster family:

There was the chaos of goodbye.

It was a goodbye that was wet, with the girl’s head buried into the woolly, worn shallows of her mother’s coat. There had been some more dragging.

Good God, I can’t even begin to imagine what this could be like for Liesel. She’s a nine-year-old girl who’s already lost her brother at the age of only 6 years old, and now she has to say goodbye to her mother as well and go off to live with people she’s never even known. Just… terrible. I mean, wow. What an absolutely awful experience.

Zusak does flat-out say that Himmel Street isn’t the worst place Liesel could go, but these don’t sound like very pleasant people, do they?

The Hubermanns.

They’d been expecting a girl and a boy and would be paid a small allowance for having them. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell Rosa Hubermann that the boy didn’t survive the trip. In fact, no one ever really wanted to tell her anything. As far as dispositions go, hers wasn’t really enviable, although she had a good record with foster kids in the past. Apparently, she’d straightened a few out.

And when Liesel finally arrives, we get this interesting bit of writing from Zusak:

*** A PHOTO OF HIMMEL STREET ***

The buildings appear to be glued together, mostly small houses

and apartment blocks that look nervous.

There is murky snow spread out like carpet.

There is concrete, empty hat-stand trees, and gray air.

Well, Markus, you are a rather smug man, aren’t you? Thinking you could describe it so well in three sentences it would be just like we were looking at a picture? But you did do a pretty solid job giving us a description in your own loosely detailed way, I’ll give you that.

It seems strange Zusak ends his description of Hans Hubermann with the statement that he rolls his own cigarettes after saying only that he is “very tall”, especially considering all the description his wife gets, who proves to be just as unpleasant as we had suspected when Liesel finds herself unable to get out of the car.

It took nearly fifteen minutes to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it.

Quietly.

So there is perhaps some hope Hans may be able to provide a breath of fresh air at this place for Liesel. But it’s obvious the poor, brotherless, motherless, Nazi-loving girl is going to have a poor time of it, isn’t she? Even if Zusak does try to lighten the mood with comic relief like this:

People started to gather on the street until Rosa Hubermann swore at them, after which they reversed back, whence they came.

*** A TRANSLATION OF ***

ROSA HUBERMANN’S ANNOUNCEMENT

“What are you assholes looking at?”

There isn’t much left in this chapter, except this description of Liesel’s book that leaves me a bit skeptical:

*** THE GRAVE DIGGER’S HANDBOOK ***

A Twelve-Step Guide to

Grave-Digging Success

Published by the Bayern Cemetery Association

I was picturing something like a notebook if this is going to function as a journal for her, and this leaves me a bit annoyed with Zusak. I hope he explains how Liesel writes in this, because it doesn’t sound like the kind of book a person could easily turn into a personal journal with printed words already over the pages.

The last sentence startled me, however:

The book thief had struck for the first time-the beginning of an illustrious career.

WHAT? I thought it was only this book that gave Liesel the titular name! So one of the questions Zusak opened us with is still unanswered? Why does Liesel continue to steal books?

Well… this has me intrigued.

GROWING UP A SAUMENSCH

Death begins the chapter by…. immediately explaining this situation better to us.

Yes, an illustrious career.

I should hasten to admit, however, that there was a considerable hiatus between the first stolen book and the second. Another noteworthy point is that the first was stolen from snow and the second from fire. Not to omit that others were also given to her. All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.

Well… thank you for all that, Death. But this is obviously sowing the pieces for what the rest of the book will be about, right? Because this is a very long book and the main plot clearly hasn’t even started yet. And we clearly need elaboration on a lot of these situations. I’ll give Zusak credit for how well he’s planned this thing out. And I see Liesel is just using the books as journals. But will her journal-writing become something more in time?

Zusak continues setting up scenarios. Apparently, they will end up in shelters and going to Dachau, eventually. (Which is a big deal! Liesel is Jewish, now?! I knew the worst of the insane anti-Semitism took place during the war, but still, wow.)

But Zusak/Death acknowledges:

In any case, that’s getting ahead of myself. Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger’s beginnings on Himmel Street and the art of saumensching:

Which is….? Despite that colon, Zusak immediately leads us into a description of Liesel’s appearance. This does give us several interesting details, however.

Liesel has brown eyes, which is foreboding as this was not part of Hitler’s idea of the master race.

Perhaps she received them from her father, but she had no way of knowing, as she couldn’t remember him. There was really only one thing she knew about her father. It was a label she did not understand.

I’m glad to hear about Liesel’s father, because I was wondering what had happened to him. We get the revelation that he was a communist, though Liesel doesn’t even understand enough to know what a communist is. I admire how Zusak understands the mindset of a child and how horrible it must have been to live through a time when even grown men were left shocked and confused by the events happening in politics.

Sadly, Liesel’s father’s political affiliations may mean that he was killed or arrested by the government. But in any case, we know what happened to a teacher at a boarding house Liesel stayed at in the past:

One day, that woman was taken away for questioning. She didn’t come back.

I am quickly becoming aware that Liesel has more reasons to be afraid for the future than she realizes, and the poor child is already upset enough as it is. Zusak is adept at making us get inside her head and sympathize with her:

No matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment. Nothing changed the fact that she was a lost, skinny child in another foreign place, with more foreign people. Alone. 

Poor thing. Poor dear, dear thing. And we have more dire foreshadowing:

The roof was flat and there was a shallow basement for storage. It was supposedly not a basement of adequate depth. In 1939, this wasn’t a problem. Later, in ’42 and ’43, it was. When air raids started, they always needed to rush down the street to a better shelter.

And explanation of our title:

Sau, of course, refers to pigs. In the case of Saumensch, it serves to castigate, berate, or plain humiliate a female.

Yes, as you might have guessed, Rosa is definitely not making Liesel’s new life happy for her:
Saumensch, du dreckiges!” Liesel’s foster mother shouted that first evening when she refused to have a bath. “You filthy pig! Why won’t you get undressed?” She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion.

Fortunately, though (and I mean “fortunately” as in “it’s probably the only thing keeping her from suicide”), she has Hans, wonderful Hans, who bonds with her in an unusual way: rolling cigarettes together.

Then Zusak goes on describing Hans in such a beautiful poetic way I just want to quote the whole thing. (And Death fortunately spoils that he manages to survive World War II. Yay.)

When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father’s eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.

I love you already, Hans. Never change.

And when you get to the “SOME FACTS ABOUT ROSA HUBERMANN”, I was just rolling my eyes.

Her cooking was atrocious.

She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she evcr met.

But then we get this that simply took me aback!

But she did love Liesel Meminger.

Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.

It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.

<sigh> Well, that’s unfortunate. But we do see her becoming warmer towards Liesel, at least.

Surprisingly the narrative then goes forward several months and it’s amazing how happy things are for Liesel and her foster family.

“Yes, Mama,” Mama corrected her. “Saumensch. Call me Mama when you talk to me.”

At that moment, Hans Hubermann had just completed rolling a cigarette, having licked the paper and joined it all up. He looked over at Liesel and winked. She would have no trouble calling him Papa.

Wow. I really never expected any of this. I like how for all the darkness and cynicism in this book, Zusak hasn’t let us become overcome with it. He isn’t completely pessimistic and he will portray kindness and good people in the world. I mean, we started off with a little boy dying, I’m imagining the worst situation possible for Liesel, and this is all perfectly LOVELY. And we don’t get enough lovely stories, you know that. From reading The Secret Garden, I’ve reflected on that. It’s all conflict, conflict, conflict, and there’s no joy in solving the problem. We need conflict, don’t get me wrong, we need conflict, but we also need moments like this.

And I must have nice things. Just for a little while.

THE WOMAN WITH THE IRON FIST

I admire that Zusak isn’t letting us forget what a horrible experience Liesel has been through, however. Losing your brother at that age would have a deep effect on you, and this is certainly portrayed here.

She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets. On the other side of the room, the bed that was meant for her brother floated boatlike in the darkness. Slowly, with the arrival of consciousness, it sank, seemingly into the floor. This vision didn’t help matters, and it would usually be quite a while before the screaming stopped.

But thankfully she has Hans to help her through it!

Possibly the only good to come out of these nightmares was that it brought Hans Hubermann, her new papa, into the room, to soothe her, to love her.

He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered, “Shhh, I’m here, it’s all right.” After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave.

Oh, Hans, you remain the most wonderful person in the world.

*** A DEFINITION NOT FOUND ***

IN THE DICTIONARY

Not leaving: an act of trust and love,

often deciphered by children

I’m trying to critique it, but I really just find myself adoring this book. And given the way it started, I can’t believe it’s staying this lovely this long.

A few times, purely to incense Mama a little further, he also brought the instrument to the kitchen and played through breakfast.

Hans, you are great. Great.

We do get a rather grim reminder that this is being narrated by Death, however:

In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it.

How do you tell if something’s alive?

You check for breathing.

And then the book has heard what I just said and changes the tone to Liesel’s despondency over missing her mother and brother, and this grim foretelling of the war:

The Hubermanns had two of their own, but they were older and had moved out. Hans Junior worked in the center of Munich, and Trudy held a job as a housemaid and child minder. Soon, they would both be in the war. One would be making bullets. The other would be shooting them. 

And getting shot by them???? And at Liesel’s tenth birthday, we get this piece of absolutely horrible:

Ten years old meant Hitler Youth. Hitler Youth meant a small brown uniform. Being female, Liesel was enrolled into what was called the BDM.

And yet none of this is played up. Zusak knows we will be horrified, so he doesn’t tell us to be horrified. In fact, he only brings up the Nazi aspect to Liesel’s BDM meetings once:

The first thing they did there was make sure your “heil Hitler” was working properly. Then you were taught to march straight, roll bandages, and sew up clothes. You were also taken hiking and on other such activities. Wednesday and Saturday were the designated meeting days, from three in the afternoon until five.

He acts if it was just an ordinary club experience for a child, because of course that’s all it was for Liesel at the time.

In fact, this chapter really just plays as a long description of what Liesel’s life with the Hubermanns was like. It goes on to describe Liesel’s anxieties when Hans goes to work, Rosa ranting about the rich people whose clothes she washes as she goes on these errands with Liesel. It serves to give a flavor for who she is, as Zusak makes it clear Rosa loves nothing more than complaining and carrying out a ridiculous feud with a neighbor.

None of it really adds anything to the plot (you could probably just skip this chapter, in fact), but it does serve the purpose of letting you get to know these characters better and become attached to them so you’ll care when things are happening to them in the plot later. A lot of it’s pretty funny, too, with beautiful writing at the end. And I love when Zusak gets self-referential:

Frau Holtzapfel was a wiry woman and quite obviously spiteful. She’d never married but had two sons, a few years older than the Hubermann offspring. Both were in the army and both will make cameo appearances by the time we’re finished here, I assure you.

Hopefully not as corpses, though I’m not going to let any of this pleasantness distract me from the fact that we’re obviously going to get plenty more of those.

THE KISS (A Childhood Decision Maker)

This has recently been turned into a movie, which has not been nearly as acclaimed or loved as the book. Many may wonder why, but I think the answer is obvious when you look at how well Zusak takes advantage of the fun you can have with writing a book. You can get away with idiosyncrasies in writing and description that simply do not translate to the screen.

The opening of this chapter gives a very good example of this. Here, Zusak flavors his trademark style of writing with a lot of exposition about the new characters he is introducing, with another touch of his self-referential streak:

* Rudy Steiner – the boy next door who was obsessed with the black American athlete Jesse Owens.

* Frau Diller – the staunch Aryan corner-shop owner.

* Tommy Müller - a kid whose chronic ear infections had resulted in several operations, a pink river of skin painted across his face, and a tendency to twitch. (Jesus. Between this and Roger Ebert’s belief his cancer was caused by radiation treatments he had for ear infections as a child, let me state again how glad I am I didn’t grow up in this time, because I had ear infections constantly when I was 2-3 years old, and when my dad took me to the doctor, every nurse in the building had to hold me in place while a doctor stuck a sharp tool into my ear and removed an enormous glob of ear wax that made my father understand why I spent hours sitting around screaming in agony.)

* A man known primarily as “Pfiffikus” – whose vulgarity made Rosa Hubermann look like a wordsmith and a saint.

And I like how Zusak has fun hinting at/spoiling areas the story will go:

The Steiners had six children. One of them, the infamous Rudy, would soon become Liesel’s best friend, and later, her partner and sometime catalyst in crime.

I watched Shutter Island recently and that was an example of a book that translated very well as a movie, but things like this really can’t be copied in a film. Still, it makes a bit more sense than the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books being turned into films, despite the fact that they hinge entirely on being diaries.

Daniel left a reply on my last post explaining that there is not much of a difference between the YA and adult classifications in Australia and the book was not written as a YA novel, but at this point, the book does begin to feel like a conventional American idea of a YA novel.

The protagonist is after all a 10-year-old girl, so I would probably object if the novel did not depict the way life is for a child. But it does necessitate a change of tone from the opening. We start off with horrible untimely deaths and grim musing on the inevitable, and here we get bogged down in children playing soccer games and passages like this.

This is probably very effective, though, given how this world is going to inevitably be thrown into chaos come September.

It does seem strange that the very brief bullying of Liesel described isn’t given a bit more time, however, as you’d think it would have been a big deal to her:

Garbage cans were used to mark out the goals.
Being the new kid in town, Liesel was immediately shoved between one pair of those cans. (Tommy Müller was finally set free, despite being the most useless soccer player Himmel Street had ever seen.)

But this is all build-up to Rudy Steiner throwing a snowball into Liesel’s face and subsequently becoming her best friend.

He was not the junior misogynistic type of boy at all. He liked girls a lot, and he liked Liesel (hence, the snowball). In fact, Rudy Steiner was one of those audacious little bastards who actually fancied himself with the ladies. Every childhood seems to have exactly such a juvenile in its midst and mists. He’s the boy who refuses to fear the opposite sex, purely because everyone else embraces that particular fear, and he’s the type who is unafraid to make a decision. In this case, Rudy had already made up his mind about Liesel Meminger.

This was me in my first years of school. Nearly all my friends were with girls, Miranda being my absolute best friend.

In fact, the innocence that these chapters have descended into reminds me of those years, when everything seemed so simpler, didn’t it? Of course, it wasn’t. People talk about times like this as being simpler days, but they weren’t really. Anyone who’s seen “Good Night, and Good Luck” knows the 50s weren’t the time of Richie and the Fonz. And Zusak portrays just that masterfully as the chapter goes on:

The shop itself was white and cold, and completely bloodless. The small house compressed beside it shivered with a little more severity than the other buildings on Himmel Street. Frau Diller administered this feeling, dishing it out as the only free item from her premises. She lived for her shop and her shop lived for the Third Reich. Even when rationing started later in the year, she was known to sell certain hard-to-get items under the counter and donate the money to the Nazi Party. On the wall behind her usual sitting position was a framed photo of the Führer. If you walked into her shop and didn’t say “heil Hitler,” you wouldn’t be served. As they walked by, Rudy drew Liesel’s attention to the bullet-proof eyes leering from the shop window. “Say ‘heil‘ when you go in there,” he warned her stiffly. “Unless you want to walk a little farther.”

And then it gets particularly extreme here:

It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did. Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls. The Star of David was painted on their doors. Those houses were almost like lepers. At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain.

“Schiller Strasse,” Rudy said. “The road of yellow stars.”

But this has me confused. It seemed to be implied that Liesel was Jewish, so shouldn’t this be a bigger deal to her? But unlike my infinitely arrogant mother, I don’t believe my assumptions are the be-all, end-all, so as it is, I have to wonder why they think this is happening.

The book then takes an interesting turn. We get some hinting about Rudy’s interest in Liesel perhaps being less platonic:

*** THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN ***

A BOY WHO HATES YOU

A boy who loves you.

Then after an encounter with the aforementioned Pfiffikus, Rudy challenges Liesel to a race down the railroad track, and we appear to get absolute confirmation:

“What do you bet, you little Saumensch? Have you got any money?”

“Of course not. Do you?”

“No.” But Rudy had an idea. It was the lover boy coming out of him. “If I beat you, I get to kiss you.” He crouched down and began rolling up his trousers.

They call off the race after falling in the mud, however, so Rosa gets mad at Liesel for getting dirty and the chapter ends with no kissing.

It’s strange how casually Liesel seems to take this, however. I think at ten years old, it’s fairly safe to say Rudy was romantically inclined towards her in wanting to kiss, and so I can say I must recant my admission I was like him. There was never anything even close to romantic interest in my friendships with those girls I mentioned in school. Though perhaps it would have developed there, I don’t know.

Well, that’s it for now. I have to say I am enjoying this book quite a lot. Much more so than The Casual Vacancy, in fact. It’s very well-written in a light way, and I find it very compulsive reading. I’m glad the book has ended on a relatively peaceful note because it’ll be a shame when the war starts and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
(Also, I may not be able to deliver the regular updates I promised. Sorry about that.)

Hello, WordPress readers! It’s a pleasure to be back with you today. For those of you who read my previous posts and liked them, I hope you enjoy these, too. If you haven’t read them, I hope you will like following along with these.

Honestly, one of the reasons I was hesitant to return was that I’m not entirely happy with my reviews of The Casual Vacancy. I was trying to combine professional analysis with the joy of reading and I’m not sure I always did that well. I feel I was limited by not having the “big picture” and after reading Rowling’s answer on Goodreads I think I missed a lot of what she was ultimately trying to achieve. Also I don’t think I addressed enough of her themes and ideas that she was getting across in writing.

I also think I was too hesitant to critique Rowling. For example, I actually used a variation of the phrase “Rowling does a good job with this” 35 times! Seriously, I counted! That must be annoying even to people who worship Rowling, which is probably who I came across as, honestly. I will therefore be avoiding any repetition of that awful phrase. Or “Zusak makes this feel realistic and like it’s playing out naturally”, for that matter.

To sum up, in these reviews I will be willing to critique Markus Zusak, and in many ways I will be writing this in an attempt to improve my criticism. I’m looking forward to it, though, as it clearly is a very widely loved book (the edition I have has 2 pages of praise, but then Water for Elephants has more than that, so who cares?).

I was planning on doing a review of Saving Mr. Banks, then doing the review of Mary Poppins Comes Back, however, then reviewing this book if I enjoyed that, but I had to order that book, so this is the one I will be starting on. They told me The Book Thief was checked out frequently as it is very popular. Which is quite a compliment, considering it’s been published in the U.S. for almost 8 years right now!

The prologue has this subtitle:

a mountain range of rubble

in which our narrator introduces:

himself – the colors – and the book thief

So I have to give Zusak credit. He has the reader interested with 6 questions which must be answered right off the bat.

1. Why are we at a mountain range?
2. Why has the mountain range been reduced to nothing but rubble?
3. Who is the narrator?
4. Who is the book thief?
5. Why is the book thief stealing books?
6. What do colors have to do with anything?

The prologue is divided into four parts, the first of which is titled:
DEATH AND CHOCOLATE

So there are two more elements that we need to figure out how they interplay.

The book begins as if to answer these questions in a straight-forward fashion:

First the colors.

Then the humans.

It then throws an immediate curve-ball at us, however, with:

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.

So we have our first obvious sign that the narrator is not human, and then we get this pleasant bit of information arbitrarily hurled at us:

*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***

You are going to die.

Well, what in the world was I worried about? This book is opening exactly the same way The Casual Vacancy did! Ha ha. But seriously, as the narrator continues, it now appears he is in fact a disturbingly sociopathic serial killer, but then Zusak seems to recognize just how much he’s alienated his readers, so he stops to explain:

-Of course, an introduction.

A beginning.

Where are my manners?

He then proceeds with very dark writing that is a good imagining of what it would be like to be Death, I suppose! This book is very popular among Goths, isn’t it?

But then we have a very strange preoccupation with color.

The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?

Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see-the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.

*** A SMALL THEORY ***

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.

In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.

Yeah, in case you can’t tell, the style of this book is very idiosyncratic, and I like that! I just can’t figure out where this is really going yet, though.

Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors.

Still, it’s possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?

Which brings me to my next point.

It’s the leftover humans.

The survivors.

They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. 

I’m glad I didn’t read this when I was a young child, because I swear I was so easily scared. I was traumatized by Secret of NIMH 2, All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, but most of all my greatest terror was of the Tale-Spin episode “The Balooest of the Blue Bloods.”

But reading it now, I find myself enjoying the blackly comic edge to it. There is something unmistakably enjoyable to it, despite how disturbing it really is.

Death now hints at the plot, which apparently centers around a person who has lost many loved ones. And Zusak gives us details of the story he is about to tell:

*A girl

* Some words

*An accordionist (??????????????)

* Some fanatical Germans

* A Jewish fist fighter

* And quite a lot of thievery

 Well, sounds like this should be very interesting. And then he gives us this last tantalizing sentence:

I saw the book thief three times.

This is clearly very heavily inspired by The Twilight Zone (a real shame Rod Serling never lived to read it), and Zusak is clearly a VERY skilled writer, and good at audience manipulation. Many books have such boring opening chapters that only exist to set up the plot, but this, right down from the prose to the short number of pages this takes, is all carefully designed to make the reader turn the page.

BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE

All right, this book is hilarious.

Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I don’t think you want to argue with me.

White is in fact the presence of all color, so he’s right. (My dad’s favorite colors, by contrast, are gray and silver. Lol.)

But then….

Next to the train line, footprints were shaken to their shins. Trees were blankets of ice.

As you might expect, someone had died.

And it’s apparently the family member of a woman who has been left with only one daughter. I have to say it’s amazing the way Zusak leaves us unsure how to feel about the book we’re reading.

“Well,” was the response, “we can’t just leave them like this, can we?”

The tall one was losing patience. “Why not?”

This is obviously a very cruel world we’re dealing with. Zusak has made that clear, but the second guard does at least show some decency in allowing the family on the train.

The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl, and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I’m surprised the guards didn’t notice me as they walked by.

It’s clear what Zusak is doing now. He’s using the character of Death as an embodiment of the cruelty and mass loss of those World War II days, as an attempt to put a voice to it.

And I was only feeling sorry for this poor girl who is one of the “leftover humans“, as Death would say. But then:

Tears were frozen to the book thief’s face.

Well, Zusak is a master of the WHAM line, isn’t he?

THE ECLIPSE

The story goes to describe another of Death’s victims, the 24-year-old victim of a plane crash. And here we get an explanation for the disparity of death in our world. Why do some people die so young, both in tragic years like this book’s, and in our everyday life, while others live so long?

***SOME OTHER SMALL FACTS***

Sometimes I arrive too early.

I rush,

and some people cling longer

to life than expected.

(And I can relate to all this because it makes me imagine my uncle. I never knew him, but from the black-and-white photo of him, an innocent youth working at a drugstore, I can easily imagine him in late October of ‘67, hit by a train at the age of 18 driving his car across the tracks.)

But then the book thief comes into play again after a boy to check the cock-pit.

Years had passed, but I recognized her.

She was panting.

This is probably a sign that she came close to dying years ago, but all the same: Who is this girl? And why is she stealing books?

I did like that we get a compassionate gesture from someone before Death takes this man’s soul (at least he seems to be the only one in the wreck):

From the toolbox, the boy took out, of all things, a teddy bear.

He reached in through the torn windshield and placed it on the pilot’s chest.

The smiling bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood.

Then we get a confusing detail:

[The dead pilot's] eyes were cold and brown – like coffee stains – and the last scrawl from above formed what, to me, appeared an odd, yet familiar, shape. A signature.

I’m sorry. What kind of scrawl? The author uses a lot of metaphorical language and I’m not sure what this is referring to in this case. It’s probably foreshadowing something that will make sense later on, though, like the Dark Mark in Harry Potter.

As with many of the others, when I  began my journey away, there seemed a quick shadow again, a final moment of eclipse-the recognition of another soul gone.

You see, to me, for just a moment, despite all of the colors that touch and grapple with what I see in this world, I will often catch an eclipse when a human dies.

I’ve seen millions of them.

I’ve seen more eclipses than I care to remember.

It is amazing that we’re only eleven pages in and already two people have died. If I ever thought I would be getting a happy book for my next project after The Casual Vacancy…

THE FLAG

Back with the third and final time Death saw the book-thieving girl…. and then we get a description of bombs dropping on a street full of playing children. I swear, this is practically too much to take.

Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after the flood.

They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls.

Is this really a YA novel? I mean, I’ve read The Hunger Games, but this… my, how Zusak is good at creating mental pictures using figurative language.

I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there.

A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her. She was clutching at a book.

So that’s what the subtitle meant. I was wondering when it would come in.

And this is obviously after Death saw her at the plane crash. It seems strange how she survived him before and I’m not even sure if she dies here or if she’s taken to the hospital.

But what’s important is that Death takes her book from the garbage and we see himself puzzling over it, greatly fascinated. The story is being set up to be told in flashback now, when we will learn of this mysterious girl.

I would watch the places where we intersect, and marvel at what the girl saw and how she survived. That is the best I can do- watch it fall into line with everything else I spectated during this time.

We get clear proof this takes place during World War II, then, as Death’s memory of her is of her wearing a swastika flag. (So she was a Nazi? Or perhaps she was made to wear that. Who knows?)

But this is a surprising inclusion:

…I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.

But why would Death want to prove that? This is so strange. And stranger still is how traditionally the prologue ends, much like The Tale of Desperaux, actually:

Here it is. One of a handful.

The Book Thief.

If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story.

I’ll show you something.

Well, this is obviously another book that will make more sense once I’ve finished it and have the full “big picture” (in a style that’s actually very similar to When You Reach Me!). And due to the unusual nature, it’s not as easy to critique it as I thought it would be. But this serves its purpose as a prologue well. It’s interesting and I think I’m going to like reading the rest of it.

Hello, fellow bloggers! I am pleased to announce that, contrary to what I previously stated, I intend to resurrect my blog to review The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in the vein of my previous entry into this site, chapter-by-chapter with commentary/criticism.

As of now,  I am aware of only three things about the book:

  • It takes place during World War II.
  • There is a character named Liesel.
  • It is narrated by Death. I remembered hearing that recently.

My read-through of the prologue will be uploaded on Saturday and posts will continue to be uploaded throughout the week. There will be no more posts on weekends as I continue blogging the book.

As for when I have finished with that I have written out a list of books I would like to review in this venue, but I have not yet decided that I will be writing reviews for more than one story. My time is currently free for such frivolities, but events have the potential to transpire which may take up more of my hours. Also there are other obligations I plan to attend to currently that may conflict with the writing of reviews on this blog.

I made no secret that the time spent blogging my read-through of The Casual Vacancy gave me a great deal of stress, but as the months have gone by I have found myself yearning for those days and pondering whether I could have fun doing more reviews. So once I have finished my blogging of The Book Thief, I will consider whether I will find it satisfactory to review more books, and if so you will be presented with the full list. As of now I will not disclose it.

This book is very critically acclaimed and popular, so I expect I will enjoy reading it.

I recognize I put a great deal of finality into my last upload on this site, but does it not seem odd that a site titled “Kirksbooks” should exist only to review one book after all?

My feelings about writing this post are very strange and difficult to put into words. I wanted to have this blog updated daily, but due to Rowling’s long, long parts and my damnable laziness, it took me nearly three months to finish it. And yet oddly enough it feels like such a short time ago that I set out on this journey. And now it has come to an end, and to be honest, I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to finish this journey. And yet operating this blog has given me such a great deal of stress, and I want to get this post up before the end of the year. To be honest, I think that’s why I don’t want to finish this post. Because of that stress, that I feel that I have such a huge obligation to write the greatest post I have ever written. This is why I will not be writing a “wrapping up” section, as Daniel has done, as it would imply that I felt all my other posts to be inferior, when I poured effort into them and I feel that some of my best work is in them. And I am not going to post readings of any more books. This is the last post of my blog, period. This project has caused me a great deal of stress. To be honest, the only reason I am completing this is because Daniel requested that I continue the posts way back when I was having trouble posting “Tuesday“. Other than him, I have not even the reward of readers.

I realize I have put a great deal of negativity into this post and now my entire blog series in general, in retrospect. And I do not want anyone to believe that I did not enjoy reading this book. I did. For months leading up to this book anticipation built up inside of me. I read the full profile of Rowling by The New Yorker a day or two before the book was released, and I went out and bought it with my own money on opening day.

And now I have finished reading it. We have reached the end of our journey. The Casual Vacancy is complete.

And so we should ask ourselves: What was the main point of this novel? How do those themes come across in the novel? Has Rowling given her first adult novel a satisfactory conclusion?

The book was advertised as a political novel, and I expected and anticipated humorous political scheming and debates, but one thing that surprised and disappointed me about the novel was that the election really wasn’t important at all. It only served in the background to further the characters’ plots. And in this final part, with the election long won, it is the characters’ plots that must be resolved.

The resolution of Shirley & Howard‘s storyline opens the chapter (the part is divided into four sections, but for once they are not numbered, perhaps so that people would read the part straight through in one sitting). Many nay-sayers may critique Rowling for creating drama with an event that was not taking place for the first time but here is a difference. Howard made a quick recovery last time. Now he has regained consciousness but is still at the hospital in critical condition. He has not said a word about Shirley running out with the needle. Rowling seems to imply that the surgery has made Howard unable to sexually perform so Shirley is no longer angry over the affair, but I wish she would be more clear on this.

Samantha & Miles‘ storyline ends in a similar way. The tragedy of Howard’s second heart attack has brought Miles and Samantha back together as well. Rowling wrote in her first novel, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them“. It’s clear this is her personal philosophy (see Andrew’s friendship with Gaia and Sukhvinder), but I’m not sure I entirely believe it myself. I could see a temporary pact being made during a tragedy, but I believe it would generally end once the tragedy has finished. It is ridiculous to me that merely the shared experience and concern would cause Samantha to suddenly love Miles to the point that she “had made love the previous night, and she had not pretended that he was anybody else“. However, I know that Samantha did have love for Miles at first, and it was a good move for Rowling to have her say earlier she wasn’t sure whether she loved him or not (although this feels like an editor’s trick, given all the feelings we’ve seen of hers before; the feeling from her should have been incorporated then), so the philosophy isn’t completely implausible in how it plays out here, though I have strong issues with it.

But another very interesting part of Samantha’s personal storyline is that the tragedy of Robbie’s death also changed Samantha in another, far more plausible way. After seeing what all happened as a result of Terri’s drug problems and a feeling of personal guilt over not saving Robbie and thus Krystal as well, she decides to join the council to try to prevent the addiction clinic from being closed. This change is very real to me and I like it, particularly because it adds a large touch of happiness to this very sad ending, which the revelation that Dr. Jawanda has gone through with her resignation does, as well, as it means Colin will be co-opted onto the council.

Andrew & Gaia‘s storyline ends happily, too, for both of them. Gaia is moving back to London as she wanted Andrew is moving to Reading and will be able to see Gaia when she visits, and perhaps this relationship will form though the feelings prior revealed that Gaia has of Andrew (“She was worth much more than Fats Wall, she knew that. If it had even been Andy Price, she would have felt better about it.”) make this somewhat unlikely. But there is hope for him, unlike

Gavin, whose storyline ends in humiliating failure, as he has burned every bridge he had, and has been left with no one, making a vain attempt to make amends with Kay only to be hung up on scornfully.

Fats‘ storyline ends merely with him finally having seemingly given up on his authentic lifestyle. Tessa attempts to take him to Krystal and Robbie’s funeral to further cure this, but Colin is angry at her over the things she revealed to Fats on the ride home (Rowling, annoyingly enough, felt it necessary to have Tessa explain the reasons for her talk with Fats), so she goes simply with Andrew. But he is allowed the further blow of guilt when he looks out the window briefly as the funeral hearse passes by with the coffins out in front to see.

Another shocking twist comes as a result of Fats’ guilt. He confessed to his parents about having written the post about Colin, then proceeded to take credit for all the other posts, in an effort to get himself punished as severely as possible, as he felt he deserved.

Sukhvinder‘s storyline ends with her having seemingly gotten over her depression, which her parents have now realized (being doctors, it stands to reason they recognize cutting scars). It bothers me to realize that Rowling appears to have forgotten Sukhvinder’s desire to drown as she describes Sukhvinder as having been afraid in the water and wondering how long she would have been able to live. But maybe this is just another case of not stating it. She may have been implying that Sukhvinder was afraid of  death in the reality despite her abstract yearning of it, a feeling I know to be perfectly real and a great insight into people, and it would seem that the near drowning was the moment that made her fully realize it. It may be Rowling realizes the insights I do not and is not stating them so the audience and the critics can read them themselves, I’m not sure.

But the storyline resolution that runs through every other one in this section, the one that the book openly closes with, is that of the Weedons. When we are in Shirley’s perspective, she has been ranting about Krystal and Fats, that they caused Howard’s condition to worsen by delaying the paramedics by calling out two ambulances and creating confusion, and to be honest, she has a point. She and Maureen gossip about the imminent funeral.

Then when the story changes to Andrew (this part is divided into sections, but they are not numbered, merely marked by spaces, perhaps so that people would read it in one sitting, which worked in my case), Gaia is planning to go to the funeral and Andrew says he will be attending as well when he hears she is going, then we get a memory of Krystal from him. Then he is driven by Tessa to pick up Fats for the funeral, but as said previously they end up going without him.

Then the POV switches to Samantha, who sees them through the window and mistakes Andrew for Fats and is shocked and then quickly turns away when she realizes her mistake out of embarrassment over “the kissing incident”. We get her reflecting on whether she should go to the funeral (she decides no) and remembering Krystal.

The book closes after Kay and Gaia leave for the funeral, at the actual funeral which is described in vivid detail, and we are told of how Sukhvinder basically made all the arrangement. The book is deeply moving (in a happy way) in Sukhvinder’s devotion, and (in a very sad way) when we learn how Terri has reacted to losing both her children practically within an instant. She has lost all energy and vitality and fallen into a deep state of depression. We are told that “Sukhvinder had been frightened of her… it was like talking to a corpse“, and  at the funeral she “…seemed scarcely aware of where she was“. (The final sentence of the book is “Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes“.)

Then we are given the feelings of the characters gathered there, and then the POV stays with Sukhvinder, who first dwells on how the vicar is refusing to speak about who Krystal was, and then we are given another memory of her, this time from Sukhvinder. Krystal Weedon’s legacy is deeply rooted into this entire part, what people think of her and the person she was. What people think of her and how they remember her is the main theme that runs through the final part.

The final chapter does a very good job portraying the characters, and resolving their plots, and the characters’ plots were what this novel were what this book was all about, nothing more. This novel is basically “a story about nothing”. To describe what the story is actually about would be impossible, because it would mean describing all the characters’ plots and how intricately and cleverly they are intertwined.

Rowling stated that she wrote it for herself planning never to publish it, and this is easy to see. She clearly came up with these people and then she got caught up in their lives. It annoys me that the publishers have advertised this as a very high-brow book, when really it is just a silly comedy in the end, nothing more than a glimpse into life in this small town. The book is life in its essence, just a slice of life in this small town. Its ending continues this theme well, too: for some, the ending is happy. For others, it is sad. For Andrew, it is bittersweet. Rowling makes it clear to us both that he may never “get” Gaia and that Simon’s abuse has not ceased and that Andrew refuses to report it when given the chance. (All is mutable!)

This is not to say that it is a bad novel, though perhaps only due to Rowling’s motivations about writing it. But I will not say whether I think this book is good or bad. Whether you like this book or not ultimately does not prove that the book is either good or bad, but succeeds stupendously at proving the kind of person you are.  Any type of the typical critical review which aims to say whether the book is good or bad and such opinions presented by people in one’s life is entirely irrelevant and should be ignored.

Rowling does a good job portraying the morays of a small town in this part most notably but in the entire book, how the plot becomes town lore, how everyone in the “lore” develops a reputation from the people in the town, which, as I have said before, was also portrayed very well in the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Small towns and their ways seem to be a thing that Rowling is obsessed with, just like death.

There is significantly less death in this book than I expected and that critics had strongly implied there would be. Yet it is a theme deeply infused into the novel. Rowling was right that “the casual vacancy” would be the perfect title for the book, for it symbolizes death itself in many cases (Barry, Robbie, and Krystal’s).

But I can see the motivation behind naming her book “Consequences” as she had originally intended to, although they are less obvious than the reasons behind the final title. The book is largely centered around consequences:

. Simon loses his job and decides to drop out of the election in consequence of his criminal actions and abuse of his son. Sadly he gains a new job and does not receive legal consequences for his abuse. Rowling certainly does not claim life is perfect.

. All of the posts are of course in consequence to their subject’s behavior, but only Simon and Howard’s have any real effect.

. Gavin’s life is ruined in consequence to him being dishonest with Kay and then through being honest with Mary. And he is humiliated in consequence to attempting to reconcile with Kay.

. Dr. Jawanda is suspended from work in consequence of her outburst at Howard in the council meeting.

. Andrew too receives negative consequences for writing the post, in his beating by Simon and his brief sadness over leaving Pagford but also positive in his satisfaction over Simon losing his job and dropping out of the election.

. Sukhvinder cuts her wrists in consequence of Fats and her mother. Her parents become kind to her in consequence of discovering her cutting. The community views her as a heroine in consequence of her attempt to save Robbie.

. Howard’s affair is revealed in consequence to Patricia mentioning it to Andrew, who in consequence writes the post, also in consequence to Simon believing Howard wrote the post mocking him.

. The consequence of Howard’s unhealthy eating is that he has two heart attacks and closes the book in the hospital in critical condition.

. The consequence of Howard’s affair is that Shirley becomes resentful and tries to kill him. Another consequence of his heart attack is that he becomes unable to perform sexually and Shirley worries about him dying, thus she dwells no more on the affair.

. Same goes for Miles and Samantha for the latter.

. And the consequence of Fats’ lifestyle is obvious. His and Krystal’s irresponsibility caused a three-and-a-half-year-old child to die. And the consequences of Gavin, Samantha, and Shirley ignoring him are also obvious.

I could go on and on, but the justification has been proven, and really, when you think about it, all novels are about consequences. You can’t write a book without them!

And the symmetry of the novel is almost poetic. The most obvious is that the song “Umbrella”  is played at both Barry’s funeral and Krystal’s, and that Krystal does not attend Barry’s funeral and the children of Barry do not attend Krystal’s (as Mary disliked Krystal and dislikes that her grave will be near Barry’s). But there is more than that. The novel begins with a casual vacancy in a literal sense, and ends with a casual vacancy in a literal sense (though not in the final chapter). It also begins with a casual vacancy in the legal sense and ends with a casual vacancy in the legal sense, in the form of Dr. Jawanda’s resignation from the Parish Council.

It will be interesting to see what place this book has in history. Will it, in time, be remembered as a classic, genius work of literature, or as a mistake, an ungodly blemish on an otherwise dignified career? (Of course, the answer will be zilch if the Mayans’ forecast comes true at midnight!) And will my blog be discovered again? What shall become of it in history?

With these words, this blog is complete. To Daniel and any Internet dwellers lurking out in the darkness who dare not speak their name, I bid you farewell. I hope you enjoyed taking this trip with me.

Goodbye.

Yes, we have reached the penultimate chapter, so to speak. I’m actually afraid to proceed, because we are so close to the end and everything is happening. I know that this part is likely going to be more of the same: unbridled excitement and madness. And I don’t want to see poor Terri fall apart. Or Krystal, for that matter. I don’t know how the prospect of reading about Howard dying makes me feel. I mean, I know he was a lying, cheating, selfish, power-hungry, all-around disgusting human being, but somehow I grew attached to him, I don’t know.

But I have to be professional. I have to finish this. So I will take a deep breath. And onward we go!

PART SIX

This part has the strangest, most confusing opening Local Council Administration excerpt in the entire book, hands down.

Weaknesses of Voluntary Bodies

22.23 …The main weaknesses of such bodies are that they are hard to launch, liable to disintegrate…

It had me completely baffled at first, so I googled “voluntary bodies” and while I couldn’t find an exact definition I have ascertained that it is a group established by a private minority of people, or something similar. So it likely refers to the social services group set up to help Robbie, but it sounds like a clever double-meaning, because the first thing it brings to mind is Sukhvinder jumping off the bridge.

I

Many, many times had Colin Wall imagined the police coming to his door. They arrived, at last, at dusk on Sunday evening: a woman and a man, not to arrest Colin, but to look for his son.

Rowling, you do not disappoint.

Surprisingly, Colin is the most calm about the situation. As Rowling puts it, “Colin had rehearsed for calamity all his life. He was ready.” It’s brilliant, really.

Isolated above the little town, no news of the calamities had yet reached Hilltop House. Andrew’s mobile rang in the kitchen.
“‘Lo,” he said, his mouth full of toast.
“Andy, it’s Tessa Wall. Is Stu with you?”
“No,” he said. “Sorry.”
But he was not at all sorry that Fats was not with him.

It shocked me how bad things have gotten between them. It’s very strange, considering they grew up friends and Fats admitted to himself that Andrew was the person he was closest with and wouldn’t be able to survive without him. But that seems to be his motivation for treating Andrew coldly: resentment for leaving him.

Rowling does a great job portraying Andrew’s feelings as he realizes where Fats is and that he needs to reveal it to Tessa: The Cubby Hole.

Seemingly, there isn’t much to the rest of this section. Tessa drives Andrew to the Cubby Hole, Andrew goes in and finds Fats, tells him that Robbie has died and calls to Tessa to tell her that he found him. But unlike Water for Elephants, where even during the climax when people were dying, I never felt the danger and anxiety because Gruen wrote it all in her typical bland lifeless style, and viewed the characters purely from the outside, here the panic, anxiety, and excitement in the realization that the book has reached its climax bleed through every sentence of the section and every character, and we feel it with them. It’s actually rather cinematic, though, in that we don’t need to know their feelings. We can practically see it in their every action, their every word. Indeed, the section plays out like a film at this point. We can see every bit of it in our mind’s eye.

II

The section opens with Sukhvinder at the house of the dog-walker who saved her. Her parents arrive, Dr. Jawanda so angry that she actually knocks over a table and smashes an ornament in the house, seemingly without thinking!

And again I spoke too soon in critiquing Rowling:

At the hospital, they made her undress again, but this time her mother was with her in the curtained cubicle, and she realized her mistake too late when she saw the expression of horror on Parminder’s face.
“My God,” she said, grabbing Sukhvinder’s forearm. “My God. What have you done to yourself?”
Sukhvinder had no words, so she allowed herself to subside into tears and uncontrollable shaking, and Vikram shouted at everyone, including Parminder, to leave her alone, but also to damn well hurry up, and that her cut needed cleaning and she needed stitches and sedatives and X-rays…

It seems that they believe that they are cuts from objects in the river, though.

In a brilliant touch, Vikram’s incredulous disgust at Miles for asking Dr. Jawanda to help Howard switches to Miles’ incredulous disgust at Dr. Jawanda for refusing to help Howard. So often in life people do believe the exact opposite things and state differing opinions as if they were cold fact that no one could dispute.

And the scene remains with them in the waiting room. Shirley’s emotions and worries are portrayed very well. The section is just full of the same character details and little details as the rest of the book, but I have to make a strong criticism about one thing: For most of the book, the characters react exactly how they would expect them to and their thoughts are exactly as you would expect them to, and this is the case for Shirley. But this is not the case for Sukhvinder. I wrote about how I thought that given her fantasies about drowning, Sukhvinder was jumping into the river believing she would die but in the way she wanted to and knowing that people would regard her as a heroine who died to save a young boy or die trying so it would be a dream come true for her. But Rowling never gave us those feelings from her. And if she only had, then the crushing sadness of the fact that absolutely no good was accomplished (when Sukhvinder is saved and Robbie is not) would be all the more apparent. It strongly disappoints me that this is not included, because it would have made the book so much more stronger. All the same, I cannot help but be impressed at how Rowling manipulates the audience with her writing: in every sentence, we feel the sadness and blunt acceptance and sheer finality that the panic and anxiety of the last section has given way to.

And she closes with the most dark, nihilistic, depressing writing I’ve ever seen, in which we are given a look at exactly who each of us really are: just a young body in a cupboard dead, just an old body being cut open on the operating table, alive, but what does it mean when the world is so fickle and flimsy as that?

In the theater upstairs, Howard Mollison’s body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda’s handiwork. Nineteen people labored to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.
And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon’s body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer.

Alfred Hitchcock said, “I enjoy playing my audience like a piano”. Rowling is an absolute master at this.

III

Now the scene is with Tessa driving Fats home. Both of these characters’ emotions are depicted perfectly. This is the most emotional, subtle, best-written scene in the entire book. Fats is getting the consequences for his so-called “authentic” actions now. He wanted to go out and have underage sex with a girl and be cool, and now he has to deal with the agonizing guilt that he caused a 3-year-old boy to die because of that.

“So you ran away,” said Tessa coldly, over his tears.
She had prayed that she would find him alive, but her strongest emotion was disgust. His tears did not soften her. She was used to men’s tears. Part of her was ashamed that he had not, after all, thrown himself into the river.
“Krystal told the police that you and she were in the bushes. You just left him to his own devices, did you?”
Fats was speechless. He could not believe her cruelty. Did she not understand the desolation roaring inside him, the horror, the sense of contagion?

Readers may find her to be unbelievably cruel, and perhaps she is. But as she tells Fats the story of his birth the attentive reader realizes (once they have gotten over the more audience reactions to the revelations that he may be a product of incest or rape and that Colin attempted suicide shortly after they adopted Fats because he thought he had killed him) what emotions she is going through, how disillusioned and nihilistic she has become. She is disappointed with herself because she wanted so desperately to raise Fats and is deeply disappointed with how he turned out. She considers leaving him at the Fields to embrace his new life as a parent and to apologize to Krystal, but thinks over all her decisions in life and decides they’ve all been bad ones, Fats is a lost cause, so she just decides to drive him home.

Rowling doesn’t spell out these things. They’re left for the clever reader to discern and I enjoyed and appreciated that.

IV

Very noticeably, all throughout the three previous sections, we were never given the slightest hint as to what had happened to Krystal after Robbie’s death. This section answers that question immediately.

The police had picked up Krystal Weedon at last as she ran hopelessly along the riverbank on the very edge of Pagford, still calling her brother in a cracked voice. … Krystal had not noticed Fats melting away into the trees; he did not exist to her anymore.

Very heart-rending. And the story stays with her as she is taken home by the police. Terri’s reaction to the police at her house and Robbie not being with Krystal is in-character and the whole thing is portrayed well.

But then the scene randomly changes to Kay and Gaia without even any random break. Compared to what else is happening in the story, their problems are of very little consequence and it’s near impossible to care at all. The only thing of note is Gaia’s utter selfishness and childishness, but even if they move there’s only one chapter left and their moving is nothing compared to what has happened in the story at this point. So it was a good move by Rowling to have the Weedons’ plot come in (via Tessa’s call, meaning the story isn’t in chronological order at this point).

And then she switches the scene back to the Weedons.

Neighbors were coming out onto their doorsteps, a fascinated audience to Terri’s meltdown. Somehow the cause of it was transmitted through the watchers, from Terri’s incoherent shouts and the attitudes of the ominous police.
“The boy’s dead,” they told each other. Nobody stepped forward to comfort or calm. Terri Weedon had no friends.

This would be very effective writing to illustrate how Terri has isolated herself in her mistrust for everyone, but it isn’t actually true. She did trust Obbo and Obbo is her friend at least in her mind and he would likely fill that role if he were there, so it really just goes to demonstrate her horrible judgment.

We then (with absolutely no warning at all) switch to Kay and Gaia getting in the car to go to the Weedons’ to see what they can do. This only lasts two paragraphs, and then the scene changes to a 3rd-person perspective of Krystal.

But by the time they had reached the bypass, Krystal had found what she was looking for: a bag of heroin concealed in the airing cupboard; the second of two that Obbo had given Terri in payment for Tessa Wall’s watch. She took it, with Terri’s works, into the bathroom, the only room that had a lock on the door.

At first it seems that Krystal is going to give the drugs to the police out of anger and depression because they caused her to leave with Robbie, but then it’s clear she’s using it herself.

Robbie was dead, and it was her fault. In trying to save him, she had killed him.

It’s true, but I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing that Rowling directly and acknowledges it. I know what I said about not acknowledging the tragedy of Sukhvinder, but actually seeing her do that with Krystal makes me wonder. On one hand, it would seem that it was just another missed opportunity at drama if she acted like it was not intentional and she did not notice, but seeing here we think that maybe she should have left the audience to notice it and say it themselves. But people could accuse them of over-analyzing and seeing things into it that she didn’t intend, so it really is a difficult dilemma for Rowling, and it leads me to believe that she did recognize the observations I made about Sukhvinder’s fate and this was her way of compromising. But maybe I’m just overthinking everything, I don’t know.

But back to the story. Krystal injects the heroin, and right up until the final sentence of the chapter it seems like this is just showing Krystal tragically turning to drugs, thus entering the world of depression and madness that her mother inhabits, because of the ultimate tragedy which Rowling has just acknowledged: In trying to prevent Robbie from being harmed and rescuing him from Terri’s world, she caused his death. So now it would seem she has given up, much like Tessa.

But then one reads the final sentence and realizes that it was entirely different, that we didn’t understand what was actually going on. She had turned to the heroin out of depression over the ultimate tragedy, but her solution was more extreme:

By the time Kay and Gaia arrived, and the police decided to force their way in, Krystal Weedon had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them.

It was to escape the world of depression and madness that her mother inhabits, and she succeeded. And in doing so, she created yet another casual vacancy in this topsy-turvy, crazed rollercoaster we call life.

(One chapter left. I must be strong.)

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