Archives for category: the book thief

I don’t suppose there’s any point in commenting on the long delay between posts at this point, so all I will say is that a lot has been going on in my personal life, a lot, too much to even begin to summarize and explain here, and to be honest, I almost forgot about reviewing this book. But things are finally back to as “status quo” as they’re ever going to get.

So the only thing to do is to say how glad I am to wash the bad taste of that J.K. Rowling miniseries out of my mouth. For once, I have some real enthusiasm for what I’m reviewing, so perhaps posts will be regular from now on.

The book has finally reached its central conflict, so to speak. The Hubermanns are a privileged German family whose lives are now going to be thrown into upheaval by the addition of one who is unprivileged to their lives.

And it’s only fitting that Death begins our next chapter by musing about simply why anyone would do that. In a world that can so often be dominated by self-interest and apathy, why would two people willingly make their lives so difficult?

LIESEL’S LECTURE

Exactly what kind of people Hans and Rosa Hubermann were was not the easiest problem to solve. Kind people? Ridiculously ignorant people? People of questionable sanity?
What was easier to define was their predicament.

*** THE SITUATION OF HANS AND ROSA HUBERMANN ***
Very sticky indeed.
In fact, frightfully sticky.

This is what I like most about Zusak’s writing, that he can make the most serious of situations seem humorous in the childlike simplicity of Death’s musings. It makes sense, too, as he finds humanity so difficult to understand that of course he feels the need to state things like this out loud.

When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you’re likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. Each plays its part, and each leads to a sneaking suspicion that a less than heavenly consequence awaits. The fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.
The surprising point to make is that despite this iridescent fear glowing as it did in the dark, they somehow resisted the urge for hysteria.

But what’s refreshing is that interspersed with complex metaphors, he also manages effective visualization through very simple descriptions like these:

She could only just make out the shape of Hans Hubermann’s tallness in the dark.
….
“Everything good?”
It was Papa again, talking this time to Max.
The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. Such was his feeling of shame. “Yes. Thank you.”

In any case, we get a vivid portrait of all of the central characters’ emotions as Max settles down to sleep in Liesel’s room for the night, and Liesel is kept awake simply trying to figure out what’s going on and how their lives will be changed.

Fittingly enough, after she, the titular character, was lost in the backstory and exposition up to this point, most of the chapter focuses on her and how she is introduced to these changes. She is kept home from school under the pretense that she’s sick, and after going through “a kind of bemused, inaugural silence” at the breakfast table, Hans calls her down into the basement and explains the situation. Details like this help us see the scene clearly through Liesel’s perspective:

“Liesel,” he said quietly, “I was never sure if any of this would happen, so I never told you. About me. About the man upstairs.” He walked from one end of the basement to the other, the lamplight magnifying his shadow. It turned him into a giant on the wall, walking back and forth…..
They faced the wall.
Dark shapes and the practice of words.

As humorously as Death stated the situation before, Hans now makes it clear just how little the consequences of what they’re doing can be treated lightly:

“Liesel, if you tell anyone about the man up there, we will all be in big trouble.” He walked the fine line of scaring her into oblivion and soothing her enough to keep her calm. He fed her the sentences and watched with his metallic eyes. Desperation and placidity. “At the very least, Mama and I will be taken away.”

And from there, Zusak marks perhaps his second instance of portraying Hans in a morally gray light, inspired by his need to protect Liesel and Max from the dangers in the world they live in.

He gave her a list of consequences.
….
“For starters,” he said, “I will take each and every one of your books – and I will burn them.” It was callous. “I’ll throw them in the stove or the fireplace.”

I like scenes like this because it shows that Hans, for all his kindness, does function as an effective authority figure when needs serve. It bothers me that Death keeps jumping over backwards in the narrative to defend Hans (Hans was clearly worried that he was on the verge of frightening her too much, but he calculated the risk, preferring to err on the side of too much fear rather than not enough. The girl’s compliance had to be an absolute, immutable fact….He was certainly acting like a tyrant, but it was necessary.), but it helps that the situation portrayed is genuinely heart-rending.

“They’ll take you away from me. Do you want that?”
She was crying now, in earnest.
“Nein.”

“Good.” His grip on her hand tightened. “They’ll drag that man out there away, and maybe Mama and me, too – and we will never, ever come back.”
And that did it.
The girl began to sob so uncontrollably that Papa was dying to pull her into him and hug her tight. He didn’t. Instead, he squatted down and watched her directly in the eyes. He unleashed his quietest words so far.
“Vertehst du mich?” Do you understand me?”
The girl nodded. She cried, and now defeated, broken, her papa held her in the painted air and the kerosene light.

The chapter ends with Death summing things up with that perfectly succinct childlike simplicity:

Everything was good.

But it was awful, too.

THE SLEEPER

This is another short chapter at only two pages long. But it provides a good bit of character contrast and delivers on the tone of its predecessor by taking us right back into the perspective of Liesel as she watches Max sleep for three days, regarding him as some sort of strange insect that has invaded their lives.

This is something I can relate to personally, because after my stepmother moved in with me it took me a long time to adjust and I would watch her speaking Khmer on the phone, reflecting that I never understood what went on in her mind.

The chapter then takes us into Max’s perspective, though, as we get a very personal look at his mental state:

Isaac. Aunt Ruth. Sarah. Mama. Walter. Hitler.
Family, friend, enemy.
They were all under the covers with him, and at one point, he appeared to be struggling with himself.

Zusak then brings these two perspectives together by illustrating once again how, in spite of all, alike the two really are:

Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared.

Not that this makes for a more pleasant encounter when they do inevitably come face-to-face.

The stranger reached out, his bed-warmed hand taking her by the forearm.
“Please.”
His voice also held on, as if possessing fingernails. He pressed it into her flesh.
“Papa!” Loud.
“Please!” Soft.

Not the best of first meetings, but things can only get better from here, right? As Hans interrupts the two, we get a tentative acknowledgment that these two will have to live together for a while:

Max’s fingers started cooling.

THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES

The book’s pace slows even further now as we get a glimpse into how everyday life with Max and the Hubermanns begins to function. The book’s perspective remains firmly on Max as he requests to live in the basement
to prevent any more conflict with Liesel and Hans helps him set a spot up.

The basement was the only place for him as far as he was concerned. Forget the cold and the loneliness. He was a Jew, and if there was one place he was destined to exist, it was a basement or any other such hidden venue of survival.

What’s worse is that, as it goes on, Max seems to be more and more self-loathing. Rather than resenting the Hubermanns for being privileged, he resents himself for being unprivileged and inconveniencing them. He almost seems to believe the propaganda Hitler spreads about him!

Thank you.

For Max Vandenburg, those were the two most pitiful words he could possibly say, rivaled only by I’m sorry. There was a constant urge to speak both expressions, spurred on by the affliction of guilt.

Zusak goes on, like a poet, delicately describing every facet of Max’s existential angst and inner desperation:

He wanted to walk out-Lord, how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to)-but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty.
To live.
Living was living.
The price was guilt and shame.

This book is so carefully constructed to make me feel like I am drowning in a dark underwater cave filled with darkness and misery where I will never be found. Zusak, you are a true poet of the sad. 😦
The book goes to Liesel’s perspective next, which is much less sympathetic:

For his first few days in the basement, Liesel had nothing to do with him. She denied his existence. His rustling hair, his cold, slippery fingers.
His tortured presence.

I can understand Liesel at first being scared of Max and then viewing Max as a curiosity, but now that she understands why he is there and has lived with him for a few days, it seems that she is simply being petty enough to resent him for inconveniencing their lives.

To be fair, even Hans and Rosa consider their best options for getting Max out of their lives, but to no avail (and Hans does patiently deal with his feces).

When Liesel is eventually forced to deal with Max, the detail that she finds most interesting about him is, quite naturally, a book.

When Max came out, he was holding Mein Kampf. Upon his arrival, he’d offered it back to Hans Hubermann but was told he could keep it.
Naturally, Liesel, while holding the dinner, couldn’t take her eyes off it. It was a book she had seen a few times at the BDM, but it hadn’t been read or used directly in their activities. There were occasional references to its greatness, as well as promises that the opportunity to study it would come in later years, as they progressed into the more senior Hitler Youth division.

Zusak also illustrates the basic problem that’s lingering underneath all this unease and awkward tension:

Therein lay the problem.
Life had altered in the wildest possible way, but it was imperative that they act as if nothing at all had happened.
Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.
That was the business of hiding a Jew.

A lot of books simply portray epic changes to the daily routine as something the characters can shrug off, as well. Living in a fantasy land you don’t know the rules for is apparently no big hurdle, but here we know that the characters don’t quite know what they’re doing. Something is going to go wrong. And we can sit through chapters and chapters of seeming tranquility, but we all know that somewhere along the lines a mistake will be made, and something bad is going to happen.

As time goes on everywhere everyone simply accepts the situation, and goes about their lives as normal, keeping it secret from everyone else in the process (including Rudy!). The more notable problem at the moment is that Helena Schmidt cancels her washing deliveries, so now Liesel and Rosa are only collecting laundry for the mayor and his wife.

We also know, of course, that Liesel will have a fallout with her and steal from the library, but for now she’s content to simply go there and read an especially disturbing book.

And luckily for Max, another book (the one Hans and Liesel have been reading) proves helpful to him when Hans arranges for them to read in the basement and discovers how bad Max’s situation is:

Slowly, then, the drop sheets were dragged aside and the emaciated body and face of Max Vandenburg appeared. In the moist light, he stood with a magic discomfort. He shivered.
Hans touched his arm, to bring him closer.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You cannot stay down here. You’ll freeze to death.”

So Hans puts his foot down with Rosa and convinces her to let Max into their bedroom every night to sleep by the fireplace and go back to the basement during the day:

A voiceless human.

The Jewish rat, back to his hole.

The reason behind this is mostly so they don’t have to keep the curtains closed all day to shield Max (which would raise suspicion), but I can’t help but wonder how much it has to do with Hans realizing the need to keep Liesel and Max apart. It’s implied he arranged for them to resume reading in the basement so the two would have to interact, but he must recognize they are not ready for that on a constant basis.

Again there is visibly no real surface conflict that must be solved. Tension does arise at Christmas when Trudy arrives and Zusak just defuses any tension by taking us through the holidays in 2 tiny paragraphs:

Christmas came and went with the smell of extra danger. As expected, Hans Junior did not come home (both a blessing and an ominous disappointment), but Trudy arrived as usual, and fortunately, things went smoothly.

*** THE QUALITIES OF SMOOTHNESS ***
Max remained in the basement.
Trudy came and went without
any suspicion.

In a way, I think this is disappointing. Zusak is obviously building up to another climax to end this part, but it would be a good exercise in tension if we were taken painstakingly through the whole process of preparing for Trudy’s visit and then the visit herself, with near misses, just to demonstrate how precarious the situation is. As Hans and Rosa ultimately decide, they can’t even trust their own daughter!

Liesel, however, starts to become less wary of Max, and the moment she starts talking to him, quite naturally for her, is over a book:

Occasionally he brought the copy of Mein Kampf and read it next to the flames, seething at the content. The third time he brought it, Liesel finally found the courage to ask her question.
“Is it – good?”

Naturally, Max is at first furious at this question (though it does make one wonder why he was actually reading it), but another side to his personality develops as he quickly puts a positive perspective on it:

Sweeping away the anger, he smiled at her. He lifted the feathery fringe and dumped it toward his eyes. “It’s the best book ever.” Looking at Papa, then back at the girl. “It saved my life.”

So carefully but surely, Zusak sows the seeds for a genuine bond between the two as Liesel’s natural curiosity over books. He makes this shift in their relationship very believable as Liesel asks for more information about how the book saved Max’s life, and becomes deeply interested in his stories as he becomes less of a mysterious cipher and more of a three-dimensional person in her estimation:

When Liesel looked back on the events of her life, those nights in the living room were some of the clearest memories she had. She could see the burning light on Max’s eggshell face and even taste the human flavor of his words. The course of his survival was related, piece by piece, as if he were cutting each part out of him and presenting it on a plate.

This soon takes a sad turn, however, as Max becomes overcome with self-loathing as he recounts his story and begins blaming himself for endangering the Hubermanns, becoming almost frenzied as he pleads for their forgiveness.

His arm touched the fire and he snapped it back.
They all watched him, silent, until Papa stood and walked closer. He sat next to him.
“Did you burn your elbow?”

It’s a small gesture, but it does a lot to demonstrate what pure human selflessness is. The fact Hans is willing to ask rather than agree with Max shows, without having to be stated, how much Max is worth, even if he refuses to see it himself. And it’s Hans who points out the similarities between Max and Liesel:

“You know something?” Hans asked. He leaned toward the fire. “Liesel’s actually a good little reader herself.” Max lowered the book. “And she has more in common with you than you might think.” Papa checked that Rosa wasn’t coming. “She likes a good fistfight, too.”

How exactly does he know about that?

“I saw [Ludwig Schmeikl]’s papa at the Knoller.”
Liesel held her face in her hands. Once uncovered again, she asked the pivotal question. “Did you tell Mama?”
“Are you kidding?” He winked at Max and whispered to the girl, “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

Please appoint this man supreme ruler of the world, for he does know it all. Hans Hubermann for the win.

And then Death himself points out what else Max and Liesel have in common:

During the nights, both Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg would go about their other similarity. In their separate rooms, they would dream their nightmares and wake up, one with a scream in drowning sheets, the other with a gasp for air next to a smoking fire.

Once Hans plants this thought in Liesel’s mind, the seeds are sown for the true emotional climax of the chapter as Zusak finally shows Liesel forming an image of Max in her mind as a true human being. So it comes realistically, after a while of Liesel only finding Max possible to converse with as a curiosity piece, that they have a true moment of unprecedented connection. Zusak portrays this all so vividly and beautifully we can imagine the scene in our own head:

She made her way quietly down the hallway and into the living and bedroom.
“Max?”
The whisper was soft, clouded in the throat of sleep.
To begin with, there was no sound of reply, but he soon sat up and searched the darkness.

Zusak finally uses the bold notes to full effect, as well, as contained in one he gives us two human beings tentatively coming to an understanding with each other, and forming the bond of friendship together, as they experience true empathy with one another.


*** THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES ***
The girl: “Tell me. What do you see when you dream like that?”
The Jew: “…I see myself turning around, and waving goodbye.”
The girl: “I also have nightmares.”
The Jew: “What do you see?”
The girl: “A train, and my dead brother.”
The Jew: “Your brother?”
The girl: “He died when I moved here, on the way.”
The girl and the Jew, together: “Ja-yes.”

Zusak admits, however, in a beautiful metaphor, that moments like this don’t create an immediate permanent impact on your lives, however, and there is still more work to be done before Liesel and Max can find true healing for their problems:

The nightmares arrived like they always did, much like the best player in the opposition when you’ve heard rumors that he might be injured or sick-but there he is, warming up with the rest of them, ready to take the field. Or like a timetabled train, arriving at a nightly platform, pulling the memories behind it on a rope. A lot of dragging. A lot of awkward bounces.

This really is Zusak’s writing at its best. It sums up what we’ve seen so far, masters the art of visualization, and stands alone as a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of his literary techniques.

And Liesel and Max’s relationship does continue to steadily improve, as Liesel gives Max a newspaper so he can do the crossword, and Max finds himself unable to figure out how to repay the favor, highlighted especially when Liesel’s birthday comes around and she receives her fifth book as a present (“The Mud Men“) he has nothing to offer.

Death ends this chapter, however, by returning to his old tradition of teasing us about the future:

I often imagine him lying awake all that night, pondering what he could possibly offer.
As it turned out, the gift was delivered on paper, just over a week later.
He would bring it to her in the early hours of morning, before retreating down the concrete steps to what he now liked to call home.

And we finally have another blueprint to work off of, heading into:

PAGES FROM THE BASEMENT

Zusak starts off by continuing the tension regarding the gift Max is preparing for Liesel, as Hans, Rosa, and Max all stop her from coming down into the basement for a week using any means necessary. This does raise the question of whether this would arouse Liesel’s suspicion, but it also gives us an opportunity to see Rosa in a different light than usual.

For once, her curmudgeonly, abrasive nature is used to help someone for once as she keeps Max’s surprise safe and…

You can do all manner of underhanded nice things when you have a caustic reputation. It worked.

GODDAMN IT, DEATH. Stop DOING MY WORK FOR ME.

But Zusak then immediately ends the mystery by showing us what Max has been working on in the basement.

During that week, Max had cut out a collection of pages from Mein Kampf and painted over them in white. He then hung them up with pegs on some string, from one end of the basement to the other.

The most important factor to note in all this is that Max has so little at his disposal in order to make a proper gift (basically a hateful book written by a power-hungry mass-murderer and paint), and yet he creates a beautiful booklet that gives this part of the book its name (“The Standover Man”).

What’s most surprising is Zusak actually takes the time to draw out the whole 13-page booklet for us to read before Liesel has a chance to (with faded text from Mein Kampf underneath to add to the realism), and while I can’t summarize the whole thing, it basically tells Max’s life story using his words and simplistic illustrations, from his father’s disappearance and his sad days in hiding, to the development of his friendship with Liesel. It is extremely simplistic to the point of childlike, but is sincere, expertly sums up Max’s character arc and the last 36 pages of the book, and most importantly, comes from the heart.

Max delivers it to Liesel’s room in the middle of the night and tells a barely-awake Liesel to read it in the morning, and Zusak even manages to make something as simple as this into beautifully surreal writing, capturing the feeling we often have when we are somewhere halfway between dream and reality, as Liesel can’t even tell if it’s happening in her head. Then when she wakes up and reads it, Zusak even describes the paper crackling in her hand.

My only complaint is it seems a bit pointless to describe this when we can literally turn the pages and see it for ourselves without needing to imagine it:

There were the erased pages of Mein Kampf, gagging, suffocating under the paint as they turned.

What Zusak does right is portraying how carefully Liesel fixates on the words, noticing a new one every time she reads the booklet through. It’s clear she is touched by Max’s present, and what’s most important, she accepts the idea he has that they are friends now.

She goes down to the basement to thank him, but he is a much heavier sleeper than her, so she simply stays and watches him, finally acknowledging him as a human being and someone she can relate to as a fellow person in the house. We get the impression that these two who went through so much suffering and death, are no longer alone, and that they have some understanding for each other.

The scrawled words of practice stood magnificently on the wall by the stairs, jagged and childlike and sweet. They looked on as both the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder.
They breathed.
German and Jewish lungs.

And the chapter, and Part Four of the book ends on a positive note, but we can only wonder where the war will take these characters, and what this newfound bond will lead to.

There’s something interesting I didn’t notice about this book that I want to talk about. I was reading the TV Tropes article Slice of Life and the first entry for Literature is this:
“The Book Thief is surprisingly slice of life, considering where it takes place.”

I was immediately shocked and thrilled to realize how true that is! And once I got thinking about it, it was something that actually gives me a lot more respect for the book, in fact, because I’ve always resented the constraints of a book’s plot structure in how it strains verisimilitude. The Casual Vacancy was obviously slice of life, I said as much there, and that’s why I was so much less bothered by its slow pace than a lot of people were.

The thing about The Book Thief that I have to respect is that it does seem to have a central plot, basically, and the narrative does play out to get to a certain point, but Zusak’s gift is in making it all feel natural, even as he tells us beforehand what it’s building up to. For example, the first chapter in this second part served to describe Liesel’s book theft at Hitler’s birthday in 1940, and the following 3 chapters take Liesel to that point as a human being as she’s reaching that point in history. She goes through happiness, sadness, mild hopefulness, then complete and utter despair, then emerges triumphant and ready for

HITLER’S BIRTHDAY, 1940

Since we’ve gotten this far, Death opens off with one paragraph showing the point where it became clear Liesel could never get a reply from her mother (the foster care office has lost track of her; also her name is Paula!) just to resolve that once and for all.

It’s well into April at this point, so the only thing left is mild preparation at this point:

This particular year, with the development of the war and Hitler’s current victorious position, the Nazi partisans of Molching wanted the celebration to be especially befitting. There would be a parade. Marching. Music. Singing. There would be a fire.

An interesting thing for me is that I was only ever aware of Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939 being a big event, designed to intimidate the world and show off Germany’s military might, to the point Mad Men included a joking comparison of an office Christmas party to it to illustrate the place it had in the American lexicon by 1964 (comical faux-German accents: “Did you enjoy the Fuhrer’s birthday?” “May he live for a thousand years!”).

I suppose it’s obvious, though, that Hitler’s birthday was celebrated broadly in Germany every year (despite the fact that I get mainly results relating to The Book Thief and even Daniel’s post when I google “hitler’s birthday 1940”). We get some interesting information about the event, too:

It would commemorate not only the Führer‘s birthday, but the victory over his enemies and over the restraints that had held Germany back since the end of World War I. “Any materials,” it requested, “from such times – newspapers, posters, books, flags – and any found propaganda of our enemies should be brought forward to the Nazi Party office on Munich Street.” Even Schiller Strasse – the road of yellow stars – which was still awaiting its renovation, was ransacked one last time, to find something, anything, to burn in the name of the Führer’s glory. It would have come as no surprise if certain members of the party had gone away and published a thousand or so books or posters of poisonous moral matter simply to incinerate them.

This feels exactly like the sort of funny historical fact that would be mentioned as an aside in a real textbook, though I’m not really interested in whether it’s true or not.

Also, we get more evidence of Death’s strange repetition of certain facts, perhaps in an effort to drill the events of this story into our mind somehow. Just as he repeated that Werner had died on the train ad nauseum, he tells us for the third or fourth time that Liesel will be stealing a book.

Then it’s right into April 20, no ifs, ands, ors, buts about it. We get one sorely needed funny bit with Hans and Rosa to prepare us for the grim realities of the day to follow.

A mini-catastrophe almost occurs when Hans can’t find the family’s Nazi flag, which serves just to show just how dangerous it was living in Nazi Germany. After all, here in America it’s considered anti-patriotic if you don’t trash the President twice before breakfast, but the fact that such unswerving obedience was required from all citizens suggests even some of the supporters may have harbored resentment toward Hitler’s government.

And it only gets worse. Remember what I said about Zusak being too impersonal in writing because Hans, Jr. and Trudy’s presence wasn’t a big deal at Christmas? Well, they’re back now, and he writes, “Now seems like a good time to introduce them a little more comprehensively

and proceeds with 2 typical Zusak-esque unorthodox descriptions that note their similarities to their parents.

However, it then becomes clear that I was more astute in my perception of Zusak’s foreshadowing that time around:

*** A SHORT HISTORY OF ***
HANS HUBERMANN VS. HIS SON
The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany – one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. As a teenager, he was aware that his father had been called “Der Juden Maler” – the Jew painter – for painting Jewish houses. Then came an incident I’ll fully present to you soon enough – the day Hans blew it, on the verge of joining the party. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to paint over slurs written on a Jewish shop front. Such behavior was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor.

Hans is, notably, however, unwilling to actually say that he doesn’t support the Nazi Party. He tries to remain neutral about his feelings, but his son confronts him and insults him for not realizing what good Hitler is doing for the country, before storming out of the house in fury.

Children have a tendency to rebel against their parents, seeing them as stuck in the past, often deliberately doing the opposite of what they would. My grandfather became a Democrat, unlike his devout Republican father, then his son became a Libertarian. I don’t think these convictions were necessarily acts of targeted disapproval, but there is still the attempt to distance one from your parents’ generation. And what’s amazing is that Zusak portrays the exchange at that level. Rather than demonizing him, he comes off as a person one can relate to. The situation is played out through the lens of the time, and no real effort is even made to make us see this through the perspective of the present, though Zusak knows his 21st-century readers will naturally be discomfited.

It also goes to show how people love judging others, to the extent that it is probably considered more PC and intelligent in 2014 to say “I judge people by their politics” than the opposite.

I have been in a situation where droves of people have supported this very statement and my opposite opinion has received no defenders. It is easy to see why this is, for at face value one’s politics are a good way of judging who they are. But in practice one is likely to just end up being arrogant and hateful towards people because you do not understand why they believe what they believe.

There are many people I love who hold political opinions I hate, find idiotic or repulsive and cannot agree with, and only get past this by forcibly repressing the urge to disagree with them.

Once when I was at my local bookstore a few years ago, a man was being mocked for buying a Glenn Beck book, to the point that he growled “Shut up, it’s not for me” and when I turned around he was gone and the clerk was calling over an equally incredulous and amused co-worker to report the sale of another Beck volume. “Good God, seriously? Another GLENN BECK book!?” When I reported this incident to my staunch Democrat aunt, she was thoroughly disgusted and appalled to the point she insisted the customer must have been a close friend or they wouldn’t have dared act that way.

Similarly I feel the Christian religion causes a great deal of problems and pain for people, but I hold nothing against individual Christians, because people are largely the product of their upbringing more than anything else, and I do not feel it is my place to guess as to why they hold their beliefs. Those clerks knew nothing of why the man was buying a Beck novel, just as I have been insulted for defending my father for being a Libertarian, even though I did this more due to being raised by him rather than any measure of my own intelligence, or even proof positive that I necessarily held said beliefs, as I in fact disagree with several! Similarly, many Libertarians are ridiculed under the belief they are Rand followers, but Ayn herself hated Libertarianism and to the best of my knowledge dear old Dad owns not a thing with her name on it.

This illustrates the failings of the “I judge people by their politics” school of thought very well, I believe. It is an easy snark to astonish and discombobulate an opponent and provides little potential for the growth of empathy, constructive debate, and rational thinking in human beings.

I fully understand why people can be so hostile in these situations, of course, because it is a passionate area for most people and in the modern age I would find Hans, Jr. repugnant if he was a neo-Nazi still, for this is a basically indefensible school of thought in 2014. I don’t know what I would think of a Communist or Socialist if I met them. I might attempt to understand why they believe what they believe, though I would probably end up just disliking them a lot as human beings as a result.

I realize I’ve gone on for quite a while on this tangent, but that’s simply a measure of what a lofty topic Zusak was willing to bring up. And here is another interesting thought he introduces:

For a while, he remained silently at the table after the eating was finished. Was he really a coward, as his son had so brutally pointed out? Certainly, in World War I, he considered himself one. He attributed his survival to it. But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?
His thoughts crisscrossed the table as he stared into it.

This is really very heavy thinking, and many people won’t go that far to consider it. I well remember my sister calling me a coward when I told her I do not give into peer pressure (this was a bald-faced lie, I’ll give her that), but all too often those who call themselves brave are in fact fool-hardy idiots. Snarking a police officer or a mugger, for instance, might be brave, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. When I was about 15 years old, I was at the park one night when I spied a dangerous-looking person who appeared to be a gang member on the verge of intimidating me. I turned tail and ran home. This may not have been brave, but it ensured no harm came to me, if I was not at risk of actual physical injury.

So I am not ashamed to admit I have been a coward at times. Many people are prone to putting their honor before their reason. It is not a coincidence that people who call themselves brave often hang out in gangs and get killed or violently assaulted, while those of us who live honest and peaceful existences retire at a healthy old age. So yes, I feel absolutely no shame in admitting that I am a coward, in many respects.

Well, anyway, Hans takes Liesel off to the BDM headquarters, from where she will march to the town square in her Hitler Youth uniform. Death closes by prepping us for the long-awaited event to come that serves to justify the book’s title:

Speeches would be made.
A fire would be lit.
A book would be stolen.

You might have noticed he closed the previous chapter with a similar prepping, and I think if I had already read the book this kind of style would do well to make me excited for my favorite parts to come. Similarly I don’t know how much has changed about the impersonality of Zusak’s writing, but I’m getting the feeling now that that may be done deliberately to show Death’s stiff relation of events described in Liesel’s diary. It’s also interesting that there are few wasted words. The writing flows very neatly.

100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT

Fittingly, the next chapter opens by throwing us right into the march to the town square. Judging by this and the chapter titles, it’s obvious these remaining three chapters will be comprised of the same basic event.

Many people may be intimidated by this book due to its length (88 chapters and 548 pages) but most of the chapters are actually very short and the book seems designed to be an easy read. In fact, if I wasn’t reading the book in this manner for the blog, I’d probably be able to get through it very quickly.

And now that we are so close to the event he has spent so much time building up to, Zusak appropriately enough includes foreshadowing of the next things to come in the story:

When Rudy’s group came into the square and was instructed to halt, there was a disprecancy. Tommy Müller. The rest of the regiment stopped marching and Tommy plowed directly into the boy in front of him.
“Dummkopf!” the boy spat before turning around.
“I’m sorry,” said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. “I couldn’t hear.” It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy.

I don’t know exactly what kinds of “troubles” these will be exactly. A deviation from what is expected of a proper German is going to get Rudy and Tommy in trouble, I suppose?

But it will have to become more than that, or be something that affects everyone. Because there’s obviously going to be a conflict in the story. We haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s clear the book can’t remain slice-of-life the whole way through. From what we know already, it will involve a Jewish fist fighter and something or someone related to Hans’ past, at the very least.

So this is probably a good point to bring out the check list again. I think Hans, Jr.’s confrontation with his father qualifies as excitement, so…

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

At the moment, Liesel’s group splits up, which does not bode well as Liesel is primed to run into trouble by herself.

The fire starts, and there is a very vivid description of it in Zusak/Death’s unique style. We then get a much-needed insight into how exactly Liesel feels about all this:

Although something inside told her that this was a crime-after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned-she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn’t help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.

I remember a book on literature that I was assigned for school in the past made the point that in a movie, you usually have to guess how the characters feel, from their dialogue, actions, and facial expressions. Most of the time, you aren’t given an insight into their personal thoughts. I have heard a favorite critic of mine cite this as a reason why The Hunger Games film could never be as good as the book: because so much of the book is filtered through and revolves around Katniss’s individual perspective.

So I’m glad to see Zusak take advantage of this opportunity for a book, and then he uses some very effective and well-written personification writing:

The thought of missing it was eased when she found a gap in the bodies and was able to see the mound of guilt, still intact. It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets. Forever. Amen.

Liesel is troubled by the fact that she cannot find Rudy, but then the speaker begins his patriotic address for the occasion, and it brings out some interesting feelings in Liesel:

He was performing now what is called a Schreierei-a consummate exhibition of passionate shouting-warning the crowd to be watchful, to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the motherland with its deplorable ways. “The immoral! The Kommunisten!” That word again. That old word. Dark rooms. Suit-wearing men.

My grandmother and aunt urged me not to read the Harry Potter books for many years due to how disturbing they found certain parts. And indeed, when I eventually did, there were parts that left me chilled to the bone when I finished a chapter. I’ve become much less sensitive since then, but this writing is absolutely stunning and spine-chilling in its sheer horror and shock, as Liesel begins to realize what happened to her mother, and the realities and implications of their involvement in the Communist party that she never understood, through her deepest memories that suggest it is likely Liesel’s father was taken away and killed so long ago she has no memory of him.

In front of her, a head with parted blond hair and pigtails sat absolutely still on its shoulders. Staring into it, Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past and her mother answering questions made up of one word.

She saw it all so clearly.

Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten.

Her dead brother.

The writing is amazingly effective, as this is the moment, perhaps the most important point in the book so far, where Liesel truly wakes up to what is happening right before her very eyes. And there will be no more happy daydreams about the Führer. No more Nazi-loving Liesel Meminger. Only recognition of the sheer beautiful evil that resides all around her.

Voices climbed over shoulders and the smell of pure German sweat struggled at first, then poured out. It rounded corner after corner, till they were all swimming in it. The words, the sweat. And smiling. Let’s not forget the smiling.

Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of “heil Hitlering.” You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You’d only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically.

The Time review excerpt on the back cover describes this writing a lot better than I ever could. “Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable the same way Kurt Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse Five: with grim, darkly consoling humor.”

I have never read Slaughterhouse Five (in fact, I’m only familiar with Vonnegut from criticisms of him on Cracked.com), but this makes me want to check it out. The next bit confuses me, though:

There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that’s getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire. 

At first, I thought this referred to literally the number of people, Jews, Nazis, Hitler himself, that met horrible deaths in the years following this. But I’m not sure if this qualifies as metaphoric. And it’s not like it was really this book-burning that set off the Holocaust. Perhaps it refers to the number of followers Hitler received as a result of this patriotic event. They, perhaps, in a way, became Death’s minions, through the genocidal years to come. I’m not sure.

The book then takes another interesting turn, however:

In her attempt to escape, a voice found her.

“Liesel!”

It made its way through and she recognized it. It was not Rudy, but she knew that voice.

She twisted free and found the face attached to it. Oh, no. Ludwig Schmeikl.

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

But it doesn’t go quite the way you would expect:

He did not, as she expected, sneer or joke or make any conversation at all. All he was able to do was pull her toward him and motion to his ankle. It had been crushed among the excitement and was bleeding dark and ominous through his sock. His face wore a helpless expression beneath his tangled blond hair. An animal. Not a deer in lights. Nothing so typical or specific. He was just an animal, hurt among the melee of its own kind, soon to be trampled by it.

So she takes pity on him and they sit together to rest by the church steps. They remember the beating episode of just 5 months past, but somehow it seems like a lifetime ago. It was the main conflict in Liesel’s life that closed off the first part of the book, but somehow just 6 chapters later it has become irrelevant and childish, with the horrible realities that have come to play. They both apologize for the incident, then sit silently having realized they are both human beings adrift in a sea of chaos, and need all the help and support they can to survive amid the madness their world has become.

The blood enlarged on Ludwig Schmeikl’s ankle.

A single word leaned against the girl.

To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes.

Absolutely beautiful.

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

THE GATES OF THIEVERY

This chapter opens in an appropriately somber fashion. Death actually writes, “Everything was sad,” in fact. There is some very solemn reflection on the horrible deed that has been done:

Now there was nothing but cleaning up, and soon, no one would even imagine it had happened.

But you could smell it.

Perhaps this symbolizes the entire world after World War II, or post-Nazi Germany. I’m not sure.

Hans comes to pick up Liesel, then, and the writing becomes very slow and deliberately paced as he can tell Liesel is unhappy. Zusak portrays the realization that has come to her very succinctly and well in his own unique fashion:

*** A SMALL ADDITION ***

The word communist + a large bonfire + a collection of dead letters + the suffering of her mother + the death of her brother = the Führer

For most of the book, Liesel has been unaware of the world around her, and Hans does not seem to want to break her blissful ignorance, but the point at which he can no longer hide the reality of their situation from her any longer is perfectly pitched.

“Did the Führer take her away?”

The question surprised them both, and it forced Papa to stand up. He looked at the brown-shirted men taking to the pile of ash with shovels. He could hear them hacking into it. Another lie was growing in his mouth, but he found it impossible to let it out. He said, “I think he might have, yes.”

And Liesel leaves Hans hate with no way to deny the reality of her new worldview, one she had already realized before he said a word to her.

“I hate the Führer,” she said. “I hate him.”

If I have exaggerated my love for him, it is only because Hans has been consistently portrayed as the most sympathetic and likable character in the book. Death even told us he was one of the 10% of German citizens who didn’t support Hitler, but he has nevertheless been portrayed realistically, in his refusal to come out and say what Liesel just has. When his son confronted him, he would not disown the Nazi Party altogether and Zusak did hint he would not embrace Hitler for more personal reasons than was being revealed at the moment, so even now we don’t really have a clear idea.

And despite being a good person, he doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, so because of all this it is unclear whether his beliefs are so extreme as Liesel’s.

This is the moment where we get a good idea of what kind of person Hans really is, through his reaction, and Zusak knows this. He knows the reader is immensely interested in Hans’ reaction to this statement, and he follows up accordingly in his writing:

And Hans Hubermann?

What did he do?

What did he say?

Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?

Not exactly.

He then throws the answer at us, with no remorse:

He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.

“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.

This is shocking to read, and even to copy down here. The book was published in 2005, and every reader would have applauded Liesel if they were in Hans’ position. It is horrifying to read of Hans reacting like this, but Zusak did cushion the blow beforehand with the express statement that he WANTED TO word-for-word “bend down and embrace his foster daughter“, and he shows us now that there is more going on than we realize:
It would be easy to say that he was just a tall man sitting poor-postured and shattered on some church steps, but he wasn’t. At the time, Liesel had no idea that her foster father, Hans Hubermann, was contemplating one of the most dangerous dilemmas a German citizen could face. Not only that, he’d been facing it for close to a year.

Close to a year ago would be around May 1939, and if one goes back to The Other Side of Sandpaper, which took place in late May 1939, a Nazi Parade on Munich Street was described, during which Hans, passively sitting by, “wore a face with the shades pulled down“. Something is going on that we are not aware of, but we do know what’s going on in his mind for the most part at this moment. These people are living in Germany in 1940, and you could not have anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi feelings back then, and Hans only acted the way he did out of this unpleasant reality. Liesel cannot go around talking like this, and Hans explains to her how it is:

“You can say that in our house,” he said, looking gravely at Liesel’s cheek. “But you never say it on the street, at school, at the BDM, never!” He stood in front of her and lifted her by the triceps. He shook her. “Do you hear me?”

With her eyes trapped wide open, Liesel nodded her compliance.

Horrible to imagine in 2014, but that’s as good as it gets in this time.

But you know WHAT OTHER TIME IT IS? TIME FOR MORE FORESHADOWING:

It was, in fact, a rehearsal for a future lecture, when all of Hans Hubermann’s worst fears arrived on Himmel Street later that year, in the early hours of a November morning.

In fact, we haven’t actually gotten much more information, as this was described in further detail back in The Smell of Friendship. I quoted the passage in full there, so I’ll just recap here:

  1. These worst fears involve Hans’ accordion.
  2. They involve an individual, in specific, arriving with “ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket“.
  3. Said individual will bring “a suitcase, a book, and two questions“.

I get spoiled for books/movies quite frequently, and in these cases I will try to get myself in the mindset of not knowing those things yet, but no matter how hard I try I always arrive with the feeling I knew the story would get to this point, and usually I don’t, oddly enough, feel hampered by this. What’s interesting is that Zusak is manufacturing this feeling deliberately. He wrote about how things only made sense for Liesel “when all the stories came together… A story. Story after story. Story within story.

What point in the story are we at now? Well, let’s bring out that check-list:

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

So, you, me, we all know what’s up next!

After another ten minutes, the gates of thievery would open just a crack, and Liesel Meminger would widen them a little further and squeeze through. 

*** TWO QUESTIONS ***

Would the gates shut behind her?

Or would they have the goodwill to let her back out?

Considering the title of this book, I think the answer is pretty clear. And I love that I know what is going to happen in the next chapter, and that I am actually supposed to! But I still feel awkward about the real time blogging for Part One’s closing chapter, so I think we should do a retrospect recap for the finale this time around.

Actually.

Forget the ten minutes.

The gates open now.

And that’s my cue to say:

ALL RIGHT WE ARE DOING THIS LIVE.

BOOK OF FIRE

All right, so the chapter does not thrust us right into the book-stealing action. Night wears on and Liesel and Hans head home. And it is a measure of Zusak’s writing skills that I was immediately alarmed by this:
To get out of the square, they would walk past the bonfire site and through a small side road onto Munich Street. They didn’t make it that far.

But it’s only a random carpenter named Wolfgang Edel who starts a conversation with Hans. We’ve never seen him before, and he only serves to provide a distraction for Liesel to wander off.

So the gates may have already opened, but it’s exactly one page before an abrupt transition to:

Liesel wandered toward the mountain of ash.

I remember Death saying there were many factors in Liesel’s desire to steal the second book, and it seemed like it would be due to her anger at the Nazi Party and her growing love for books. But what’s rather strange and difficult to figure out is what’s drawing her in to the mound in the first place:

It sat like a magnet, like a freak. Irresistible to the eyes, similar to the road of yellow stars.

The mood is very eerie and tense as Liesel keeps making her way closer, drawn on like Aurora to the spinning-wheel in Sleeping Beauty.

Pass auf, Kind,” a uniform said to her at one point. “Look out, child,” as he shoveled some more ash onto a cart.

Closer to the town hall, under a light, some shadows stood and talked, most likely exulting in the success of the fire. From Liesel’s position, their voices were only sounds. Not words at all.

But what are they saying? Liesel has been noticed already. Are they discussing locating Hans to return Liesel to him? Is she going to get seen taking the books?

But somehow she manages to stay there for a few minutes simply watching, and Hans must be getting worried by now.

They came back and forth from a truck, and after three return trips, when the heap was reduced near the bottom, a small section of living material slipped from inside the ash.

*** THE MATERIAL ***

Half a red flag, two posters advertising a Jewish poet,

three books, and a wooden sign with something written

on it in Hebrew

Obviously Semitic in nature, so it’s easy to see why they were burned, but how did they survive the fire?

Perhaps they were damp. Perhaps the fire didn’t burn long enough to fully reach the depth where they sat.

Okay. But, wait… THREE books? SO WHY DID LIESEL GET ONLY ONE?!!!

“Come on,” said one of them. “Hurry up, will you, I’m starving.”

They moved toward the truck.

He’s already trying to lull us into a sense of security, but I’m not buying it: Why is Liesel not about to get all three books?

The heat was still strong enough to warm her when she stood at the foot of the ash heap. When she reached her hand in, she was bitten, but on the second attempt, she made sure she was fast enough.

This is so tense. I know she succeeds at least partially, I know that she’ll be alive in 1943, I know there are four hundred and sixteen pages left, yet I’m still on the edge of my seat AGAIN.

She latched onto the closest of the books. It was hot, but it was also wet, burned only at the edges, but otherwise unhurt.

It was blue.

Death mentioned a lot of red writing and a red picture on “The Shoulder Shrug”, but the first detail he mentioned of it was that it was blue. So she’s got it now, right? How does the chapter not simply end here?

Red letters were pressed into those fibers. The only word Liesel had time to read was Shoulder. There wasn’t enough time for the rest…

All right, so mission accomplished! That’s that. What’s left?

, and there was a problem. The smoke.

This doesn’t refer to smoke inhalation, does it? Because Death mentioned “it smoked in her hands…. it lit her ribs.” So I’m sorry, I’m not feeling the big tension here.

There were fourteen steps till the voice.

It propped itself up behind her.

“Hey!”

That was when she nearly ran back and tossed the book onto the mound, but she was unable. The only movement at her disposal was the act of turning.

All right, this is disconcerting. Who is it?

“There are some things here that didn’t burn!” It was one of the cleanup men. He was not facing the girl, but rather, the people standing by the town hall.

So all she has to do is hide the book and get out of there.

We do get some hinting at the future of just how famous Liesel will become for her book thievery, but as it is I’m sorry to be negative, but no, this chapter didn’t have as much tension as it could have because of how much was given away beforehand. She gets back to Hans and Wolfgang Edel, and then, well, we get some more suspense:

Immediately, when the smile shrank from her lips, she could feel something else. Or more to the point, someone else. There was no mistaking the watched feeling. It was all over her, and it was confirmed when she dared to face the shadows over at the town hall. To the side of the collection of silhouettes, another one stood, a few meters removed, and Liesel realized two things.

*** A FEW SMALL PIECES ***

OF RECOGNITION

1. The shadow’s identity and

2. The fact that it had seen everything

All right, I don’t know how to feel anymore. I’m constantly being manipulated and we get few details of this person, but Liesel is only irritated and given Death mentioned Rudy being involved in Liesel’s thievery to come, I’m guessing it’s just him.

“What’s wrong?” Papa asked.

“Nothing.”

Quite a few things, however, were most definitely wrong:

Smoke was rising out of Liesel’s collar.

A necklace of sweat had formed around her throat.

Beneath her shirt, a book was eating her up.

Well, that’s it! I can’t say it was as strong a finish as the last part, but it was at least focused well on getting us to this point and it does solidify the title. The realities of the war are coming into play, Liesel has reached the turning point in her character now, and I am eager to see what lies ahead because I don’t really know what’s next, actually. It’ll be interesting to read the 8 parts to come.

But for now… bye.

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. 

😄

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.”