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


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.)


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 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:


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!



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:


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.


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.



“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:


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.


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.


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.



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:



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.)