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.
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.
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:
* 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.)
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 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.
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…
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.