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I started off my prior review “I Read The Book Thief – Part 3, Chapters One-Four” with the following statement: “Hello, and welcome again! It’s good to be back. I apologize for the long delay. I hope to not keep you waiting nearly as long in the future (well, to the few people who actually care about these reviews), but there were matters in my personal life I had to attend to.”

Well, more than twice as many months down the line, all I can say is that hope doesn’t always pay off, clearly. I can’t explain the long absence, either. There were certainly many, many more complicated matters in my personal life, but also I am a very slow reader and I deliberately put it aside until I had finished several other books. At the moment I am only dividing my attentions between this and one other of the four books previously listed:
11/22/63 by Stephen King

I have to thank my few loyal commenters, though, for being so kind and patient in waiting. And we did leave off on a very suspenseful place, at least:

The house was pale, almost sick-looking, with an iron gate and a brown spit-stained door.
From his pocket, he pulled out the key. It did not sparkle but lay dull and limp in his hand. For a moment, he squeezed it, half expecting it to come leaking toward his wrist. It didn’t. The metal was hard and flat, with a healthy set of teeth, and he squeezed it till it pierced him.
Slowly, then, the struggler leaned forward, his cheek against the wood, and he removed the key from his fist.

I realize I’ve said this before, but for a book about Nazi Germany narrated by Death, this has been pretty peaceful and laid back so far. But now all that is about to change, as the realities of life for the oppressed during World War II are coming to the privileged Hubermanns and their world is about to be shaken up. I’m on the edge of my seat right now, eager to see the tension and conflict that will be sure to develop, because I don’t know where the book is going as we enter Part Four, titled “the standover man“.

This is obviously another book either stolen or at least obtained by Liesel, going by the trend, and I’m intrigued by the subtitles, right off the bat.

featuring:
the accordionist – a promise keeper – a good girl – a jewish fist fighter – the wrath of rosa – a lecture – a sleeper – the swapping of nightmares – and some pages from the basement

Hans is the accordionist, I’m assuming Liesel is the “good girl”, the Jewish fist fighter is obviously Max, and the last four I have pretty well figured out. Rosa gets mad at Hans for whatever deals he made that got them into sheltering Max, she lectures Max, then Max goes to sleep, and he enjoys reading over some of Liesel’s books with her in the basement. The second one, “a promise keeper” probably refers to whatever promise Hans made to someone that has forced him into sheltering a Jew during World War II.

Well, probably. The only way to find out is by diving in and reading

THE ACCORDIONIST
(The Secret Life of Hans Hubermann)

Well, with a title like that, how can I not be intrigued to be absorbed back into this book’s world? And Zusak immediately throws us into the situation:

There was a young man standing in the kitchen. The key in his hand felt like it was rusting into his palm. 

I did miss Markus Zusak’s writing so much. I love how truly palpable the tension is, primarily due to the fact that every slight action is over-dramatized to the maximum gravitas it can possibly achieve:

He didn’t speak anything like hello, or please help, or any other such expected sentence. He asked two questions.

*** QUESTION ONE ***

“Hans Hubermann?”

*** QUESTION TWO ***

“Do you still play the accordion?”

As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man’s voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him.

I’ve never read anything like this book. It is a true visionary in the art of writing. Especially as we proceed to abandon the present situation entirely for the rest of the chapter as Death steps in to tell the tale of what led up to this:

It all dated back many years, to World War I.

If there were times when one found it easy to forget that this book is narrated by Death, now we are certainly forced to remember. At the beginning of this fourth part, the grim, charmingly fatalistic Rod Serling-esque narration of a world half-full that we found in the book’s opening chapters has truly returned:

They’re strange, those wars.
Full of blood and violence-but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. “It’s true,” people will mutter. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. It was that fox who saved my life,” or, “They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?”

Since Zusak’s writing is so dominated by these idiosyncratic touches, I should acknowledge one idiosyncratic reading tendency I use. Whenever there is a break in a book dictated by an inch-long space (dictating scene/topic separations), I take it as an opportunity to momentarily pause my reading and then resume. (As a child I always insisted my aunt and father pause for a full minute whenever they encountered one of these breaks when reading to me.)

They were conspicuously absent from The Hunger Games trilogy, which I suppose made the tension more effective. But Zusak uses those mini-breaks constantly in this chapter, and it works very well to show Death unfolding the story in a very calm, easy manner, as it details Hans’ career in the army and muses over how he managed to escape Death.

I will make one criticism of Zusak’s writing here, though. Page 174 of my copy of the book ends with this passage:

In the army, [Hans] didn’t stick out at either end. He ran in the middle, climbed in the middle, and he could shoot straight enough so as not to affront his superiors. Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chosen to run straight at me.

*** A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE ***
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.

Since this is where the page stops, naturally I assumed this was the complete note. Ending there, it’s a very succinct, blackly comic aside that could only be delivered by our personal narrator. The point is delivered very well without explicitly spelling it out. Unfortunately, it goes on into the next page:

They are not.

They’re running at me.

I realize Zusak edited and re-drafted this book painstakingly and has described his constant search for perfection in writing, but I have to wonder: how in the world did he think that it was necessary to include those last two sentences? It’s right up there with Steve Kloves’ “She needs to sort out her priorities” line in the first Harry Potter screenplay in its absolute utter redundancy! Ugh!

The writing is much better from this point on, though, as he details Hans’ recollections, which sound exactly as if they came from the lips of any 70-something ‘Nam veteran who spends his Sundays smoking cigarettes with old buddies in his front garage reminiscing:

It was like a serial. Day after day after day. After day:
The conversation of bullets.
Resting men.
The best dirty jokes in the world.
Cold sweat – that malignant little friend – outstaying its welcome in the armpits and trousers.

I recognize that I have never served, but I think Markus Zusak just bested Goodnight Saigon and M*A*S*H for the best description of everyday life in the military. Congratulations.

I mean, the one thing people often find hardest to comprehend about those who managed to survive war is how they can look back fondly on it at all, let alone treat it as a happy bonding experience that allowed them to make good friends. Zusak explains this very well here, in a passage that also serves to explain the unascertained connection with Hans to Max:

It was a man a year older than himself – a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg – who taught him to play the accordion. The two of them gradually became friends due to the fact that neither of them was terribly interested in fighting. They preferred rolling cigarettes to rolling in snow and mud. They preferred shooting craps to shooting bullets. A firm friendship was built on gambling, smoking, and music, not to mention a shared desire for survival. 

And that’s exactly why we all love you, Hans. 😄

But the realities of war are, of course:

The only trouble with this was that Erik Vandenburg would later be found in several pieces on a grassy hill. His eyes were open and his wedding ring was stolen.

<JAW DROPS> Wow. I mean, WOW, JUST WOW! I am genuinely terrified for the moment when a character we actually care about dies. I mean, forget abrupt tonal change, this book is brutal with a capital B!

All that was really left of Erik Vandenburg was a few personal items and the fingerprinted accordion. Everything but the instrument was sent home. It was considered too big. Almost with self-reproach, it sat on his makeshift bed at the base camp and was given to his friend, Hans Hubermann, who happened to be the only man to survive.

*** HE SURVIVED LIKE THIS ***
He didn’t go into battle that day.

All right, I’m willing to forget what I said about the last one. That note is flawless, succinct perfection.

The theme all goes back to Death’s quote from the prologue: “Was it fate? Misfortune? Is that what glued them down like that? Of course not. Let’s not be stupid. It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.

There isn’t always a strategy in life. A lot comes down to pure luck and happenstance, whether you like it or not.

The story that goes on to explain this, though, comes off as something out of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. I realize a lot of the appeal of this book comes from that Time quote I previously mentioned: “Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable… with grim, darkly consoling humor.

And I lost count of how many times I chuckled in spite of myself at those little bits Zusak threw in this chapter to break up the darkness. But even so, I don’t know how I can even describe the story to you that explains why a sergeant excused Hans from battle that day it’s so ridiculous.

It doesn’t matter. This is what’s important:

Still no one stepped forward, but a voice stooped out and ambled toward the sergeant. It sat at his feet, waiting for a good kicking. It said, “Hubermann, sir.” The voice belonged to Erik Vandenburg. He obviously thought that today wasn’t the appropriate time for his friend to die.

You see, the sergeant just has this reputation for asking for strange requirements from his recruits, then when they speak up, they’re immediately assigned to various dehumanizing activities. It’s obviously a petty thing to do in the middle of war, but in this case, it’s the only thing that saved Hans’ life.

Erik Vandenburg just demonstrated the ultimate devotion to a friend he hasn’t known all that long but has made these past months so much more bearable by ensuring he stays out of the deadly battle the rest of the troop has to enter, perhaps knowing he would never come back alive and certainly knowing that if Hans stood up himself, he would be ostracized as the coward that his own son believes him to be more than twenty years later.

The sergeant sighed. “The captain needs a few dozen letters written for him. He’s got terrible rheumatism in his fingers. Or arthritis. You’ll be writing them for him.”
This was no time to argue, especially when Schlink was sent to clean the toilets and the other one, Pflegger, nearly killed himself licking envelopes. His tongue was infection blue.
“Yes, sir.” Hans nodded, and that was the end of it. His writing ability was dubious to say the least, but he considered himself lucky. He wrote the letters as best he could while the rest of the men went into battle.
None of them came back.

So Hans Hubermann really is a remarkably lucky man. This becomes even more clear as Death gives us a remarkably significant spoiler!

That was the first time Hans Hubermann escaped me. The Great War.
A second escape was still to come, in 1943, in Essen.

………………. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..          what what what I’m sorry just

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m trying to hold myself together here. I still regret how much I lost control of the critical-analysis train (to see the least) at the end of Part One. So I am just going to write one paragraph below and you can all ignore it, then we’ll get back to analytical commentary.

HANS HUBERMANN IS GOING TO ALMOST DIE THREE YEARS FROM NOW AND DEATH JUST TOLD US THIS WITH ABSOLUTELY NO WARNING. WHAT I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS GOOD
ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE!

What’s most shocking is that the random flash-forward we got before makes suddenly more sense, and I don’t think Zusak is an author who will throw red herrings at us. The flashback wasn’t just to 1943, it was specifically September! Either Hans already had a near-death experience by that point or he came close to death within the next three and a half months. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And I’ve said before that Zusak wastes next to no words and I know the editing was insanely thorough. So I’m pointing to this line, “He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be

” as evidence that Hans was wounded in an explosion or he was shot and plaster was in his wound but it has now been removed. I’d say this is going to keep me on the edge of my seat for all of 1943, but for all I know Death might just come out and tell me what happens to Hans in the next chapter. This is so much worse than Rowling I can’t do much but shake my head in disbelief.

The one good conclusion I’m going to draw from this is that I may not have to worry about Hans dying in the war, after all. Unless he dies in the next two years, of all. And for all we know, Zusak will probably have him step on a grenade on January 1, 1944. Sigh.

The real point one can make from all this is how perfectly Zusak’s work loops around and gets back to itself, explaining what came previously, no matter how long it takes. And, even though it was clear already at this point, Hans pays a visit to his friend’s widow at the end of the war, makes a useless offer to paint her house in an attempt to make up for her loss, and meets her son.

“This is Max,” the woman said, but the boy was too young and shy to say anything. He was skinny, with soft hair, and his thick, murky eyes watched as the stranger played one more song in the heavy room. From face to face, he looked on as the man played and the woman wept. The different notes handled her eyes. Such sadness.

It gets worse. Guess what Hans is playing for them on his accordion? The passage came earlier, but here it is:

“He taught me to play,” Hans informed her, as though it might help.
Perhaps it did, for the devastated woman asked if he could play it for her, and she silently wept as he pressed the buttons and keys of a clumsy “Blue Danube Waltz.” It was her husband’s favorite.

I’m speechless. I said it before, but Death is literally writing this book and aiming everything specifically at me. I have never been a big classical music lover, but there is one word I will say about The Blue Danube Waltz:
2001. My favorite film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece saying so much with not a word in five gorgeous minutes of pure wonder at how far man has come, for better or worse, from the primitive apes who found it a remarkable victory to exercise any control over their barren landscape dominated by predators to the conquerors of outer space, the limits to which are unknown and nearly incomprehensible to most to this day, and dwarf the human beings themselves in its vast bitter emptiness. I have watched that sequence alone from the film on too many dark nights before bed to count, and I can’t even begin to explain here how much that piece has meant to me in consequence.

And Erik, Erik, you never imagined it, not close. I almost get teary-eyed just thinking of it (I will repeat quietly, almost).

Perhaps surprisingly, the chapter goes on for another six pages from here to detail Hans’ dislike for the Nazi party and his unpleasant history with the local officials. His reasoning for not joining is surprising in that it displays only a bit of his personal backstory. It primarily just shows his virtues as a human being, the way I suspected. Whether that’s disappointing or not I’ll leave to you, but I will quote the specific note here because it is rather heartwarming in its simplicities:

*** THE THOUGHT PROCESS OF ***
HANS HUBERMANN
He was not well-educated or political, but if
nothing else, he was a man who appreciated
fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and
he couldn’t forget that. He couldn’t join a
party that antagonized people in such a way.
Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his
most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many
of the Jews believed, he didn’t think the
hatred could last, and it was a conscious
decision not to follow Hitler. On many
levels, it was a disastrous one.

At first the problem only seems to be that he is losing customers once word gets out that he isn’t a party member. But he eventually actually applies to join and then things get much worse.

After lodging his form at the Nazi headquarters on Munich Street, he witnessed four men throw several bricks into a clothing store named Kleinmann’s. It was one of the few Jewish shops that were still in operation in Molching.

Naturally Hans, being the kind person that he is, offers to help the owner clean up, but surprisingly the owner actually shows a great deal of empathy for Hans in urging him not to. And Hans shockingly makes the terrible decision of actually trying to go back on his membership application, before he abruptly realizes this is a big mistake and backs down.

This reminds me of similar scenes in The Incredibles when Bob Parr has to face the anger of his boss over attempting to genuinely help his clients deal with insurance claims, while simultaneously allowing them to bypass bureaucratic loopholes that aim for maximum profit for the corporation, not the customers. It’s an idea that could be very eyerolling, but I think both that film and The Book Thief pull it off very well in making the character seem like a genuinely good person who is doing it out of a deep-seated desire for justice, and it’s very interesting to see the reality of an individual being punished for daring to break from the conformist mindset, as authority-mandated herd mentality too often prevails in real life.

And from there his luck seems to suddenly run out:

The door at Kleinmann’s Clothing was still moist with dew. Hans dried it. He managed to match the color as close as humanly possible and gave it a good solid coat.
Innocuously, a man walked
past.
“Heil Hitler,” he said.
“Heil Hitler,” Hans replied.

*** THREE SMALL BUT ***
IMPORTANT FACTS
1. The man who walked past was Rolf Fischer, one of
Molching’s greatest Nazis.
2. A new slur was painted on the door
within sixteen hours.
3. Hans Hubermann was not granted
membership in the Nazi Party.
Not yet, anyway.

The last line is very telling, in that Death is going out of its way to hint at future events in the story, but without directly telling us what will happen. And this gives us a subtle and foreboding clue, too:

Toward the end of 1938, when the Jews were cleared out completely after Kristallnacht, the Gestapo visited. They searched the house, and when nothing or no one suspicious was found, Hans Hubermann was one of the fortunate:
He was allowed to stay.

But one can only hope the Gestapo doesn’t search his house again now that he has something or some one suspicious to hide, right? All right, I’m going to make my prediction: Hans will be accepted, the Nazis will hold a meeting at his house, and Max will be found but we probably won’t find out until later. And this will probably happen in 1943, so Hans will likely almost die and have plaster stuck in his leg, then, too.

The chapter ends with the story coming full circle. Death now reveals that it was on June 16, 1939 that Hans was approached by Kugler at work, was asked if he could keep a promise, and subsequently made plans to talk later at night.

Going back to Part One, the chapter “The Other Side of Sandpaper” described the events of late May 1939 in which Hans watched a NSDAP parade on the footpath in Munich Street and “wore a face with the shades pulled down“. It was then that Death mentioned his lack of support for Hitler, and gave no information beyond saying there was a reason which he has just detailed to us at length now. The chapter also mentioned Liesel writing in her journal in 1943: “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…
But in the following chapter, which takes place “over the next few weeks and into summer” presumably shortly after Hans was contacted by Kugler, we got this, which makes so much more sense in hindsight:

Hans pulled out the accordion. Liesel looked at him and listened, though she did not immediately notice the perplexed expression on her papa’s face that evening as he played.

*** PAPA’S FACE ***

It traveled and wondered,

but it disclosed no answers.

Not yet.

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.
For now, there was only the one as far as Liesel was concerned, and she was enjoying it.

That really does sum up the appeal of the writing. Zusak uses more than just spoilers the likes of which an internet troll could deliver. This book is a masterful, well-woven tapestry that folds perfectly over and into itself. Zusak knows exactly what is going to happen, and he parcels out information to build the tension, telling us certain things ahead of time and keeping us waiting to explain other information. And that’s why it’s so much fun to go back through the book and realize how shockingly much we were told ahead of time. And now we appear to have everything well explained to us, and it’s only a question of what will happen in 1943.

In case you can’t tell, I really love reading this book. 😄

A GOOD GIRL

This is a particularly brief chapter, only 2 pages long in fact. It does return us right back to the immediate situation, however.

In November 1940, when Max Vandenburg arrived in the kitchen of 33 Himmel Street, he was twenty-four years old.

Which is devastating that someone so young should have to experience this mindless hatred. And I honestly imagined him as a man in his forties or early fifties, probably because I didn’t want to be reminded of what Liesel suffered at a much younger age.

The rest of the chapter is primarily based on capturing the emotions of the characters. Max is emotionally desperate, cold, and terrified, and he simply doesn’t know how to respond to the idea that he might be safe. He just collapses, overwhelmed by where he is and what is to come.

But Liesel has even less an idea of what to make of this scene:

“Papa?”
Max stood up, like a struck match. The darkness swelled now, around him.
“Everything’s fine, Liesel,” Papa said. “Go back to bed.”

If anything, this chapter is a fine example of minimalism. Hans has to make vague unsatisfying reassurance for both his foster daughter and his dead friend’s son and Liesel goes to bed wondering what can possibly be going on while Max stays up trying to work out with Hans what will come next.

The chapter is very restrained and distant, as if setting up much more to follow. It’s very noticeable Rosa is inexplicably not present, because obviously if she were here this would be a much more dramatic, extroverted scene. Which does bother me, because it’s obvious now Hans kept this whole thing a secret from not only his foster daughter, but his own wife as well. I get he didn’t want to endanger Max’s safety or make his family concerned, but did he not foresee that Max could end up staying with them? How long has Hans been notified of this, and failed to tell anyone?

One wild card was yet to be played.

Clearly, still so many answers are yet to come…….

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE JEWISH FIST FIGHTER

And as you can imagine from the title, we proceed to get more of them in the form of further abandonment of the central narrative to deliver more backstory, this time obviously from the side of Max Vandenburg.

I’m going to take the opportunity here to discuss something I have been ignoring. One of my commenters brought this up, but I never mentioned it myself. The Book Thief was adapted into a movie in 2013. I find myself extremely wary of this film for many reasons, mostly because I simply do not feel this would translate well to a film at all. So much of it, right down to the very title, gets its appeal from the way a book is constructed, right down to the fact that the very title suggests that love of books.

I don’t see how the writing which communicates Death’s unique perspective could translate to film. As I said in my Secret Garden (1949)

review, “films suffer due to not being able to employ prose (and thus limiting your range to a smaller variety of story-telling techniques).”

A very good example lies here, as what follows is ten pages of sheer backstory and exposition designed to set up the plot. I think it would be very difficult for a film to get away with bringing the momentum of a film to an abrupt halt like this. Exposition is one of the most difficult aspects of a film to pull off, which may be why it was severely streamlined to the point of being left out in many of the Harry Potter film adaptations. I would argue this was at the expense of narrative logic (but I had a disagreement with one of my commenters recently on this issue), but the audience might sit still for some of the absolute essentials, a movie couldn’t really get away with getting bogged down in the specifics and it would need to get the point across with a fast pace, basically on autopilot, unless it wanted to change the focus of the entire film. (I would be interested to hear exceptions or insight about this in film from my commenters, of course.)

The chapter starts by simply describing Max’s history with fist fighting as a child at length (that detail that Zusak actually allowed us to know about him long before we got his name even). This can become wearying, until the purpose becomes immediately obvious in what it reveals of Max’s character:

Just when it was getting interesting, both boys were hauled away by their collars. A watchful parent.
A trickle of blood was dripping from Max’s mouth.
He tasted it, and it tasted good.

This is especially noteworthy considering how weak, terrified, and defenseless Max has always appeared to come across and view himself as in the text, but as we can see, Max is more than prepared for physical confrontation. But of course this can give him no help against a threat coming from the central government. Death gives us the impression at first that these fights Max had were basically a product of his neighborhood, but then shows us this was not true in a passage that also qualifies as a beautiful bait-and-switch:

Not many people who came from his neighborhood were fighters, and if they were, they didn’t do it with their fists. In those days, they said the Jews preferred to simply stand and take things. Take the abuse quietly and then work their way back to the top. Obviously, every Jew is not the same.

I literally was caught off guard by the last two sentences. They are amazing in what abrupt change of tone creeps in, as it’s one of the first times Death expresses actual emotion and anger at human beings, although we have had glimpses of this sort of bitter sarcasm.

Death then goes on for a while to just give a general overview of Max’s life, until his uncle dies when he is 13. It’s here that in addition to further developing Max’s character, the book actually feels overwhelming and brutal even to read as I got the full sense of the mysterious ethereal force known as the Grim Reaper communicating these words:

As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.

Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes, and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.

The man’s face was so accepting.

So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull-the endless jawline, stretching for miles; the pop-up cheekbones; and the pothole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.

 

Where’s the fight? he wondered.

Where’s the will to hold on?

All this backstory proves useful as I genuinely got the full weight of this scene, and felt like I was in there with the young Max in 1929 just as I was there with Liesel having been beaten by her foster mother into a bloody pulp on the kitchen floor and realizing she will never see her biological mother again. It’s shocking to read, but children do so often lack empathy and the capacity to really grasp and appreciate human emotions and the full magnitude of what they’re seeing at this early age.

I said it before and I will say it again: I don’t think I could have handled reading this book as a very young child. When I was this age, at random intervals I became terrified and violently overwhelmed by the knowledge that I would one day die and that this state would last for all of eternity. I remember, aged about 6-7, meeting my great-grandfather face-to-face when he was around 92-93 years old and asking him if he was afraid to die. I can still see him smiling and saying, “No,” and the great conviction that he considered it such a silly, frivolous question to ask. When he did die it was by all accounts this same scene, peaceful, surrounded by his sons and one grandson, gasping with his last breath “going up to Marian”. I’m glad I wasn’t there, though, but unlike Max, I don’t think I could have handled it.

As I’ve said before I went to my step-grandfather’s funeral 2 years ago. His death came with no warning after being put in a nursing home for a fall. I thought before that that those who work in funeral homes must inevitably see those around them as but living corpses, but looking at my Papaw I got the singular impression this would not be possible, that flesh without intelligence is but a hollow waxwork figure, absolutely meaningless. A woman I had never known silently intoned “We are all going to meet our maker, and none of us knows when it will happen, or even if we will live to the end of the day.” If it had been anyone else I would have been too sick for words by the full emotional detachment spread from a life in a dark industry cooled by the desperate unflinching belief in the inevitable and the lack of empathy towards any who share even religious doubt at what emotional effect this might have, but this man had been all but dead for years, pouring cigarette smoke and alcohol into his diabetes-riddled body every Saturday that I did see him and going without speaking primarily except to close friends.

And if you desire that cool apathetic detachment I will recount to you my mother’s words as I lay overwhelmed on a couch in a side room: “He was 57, and he did not take care of himself at all.” She spoke them gently as if they were the most comforting bits of wisdom imaginable.

Zusak perfects the art of subtlety in this next passage, to a certain degree:

“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
Yes.
I like that a lot.

My reaction was always, of course, the simple amazement that people will go on living when they know it will one day end, that there is no widespread panic in the streets and how that could possibly be. I figured out why when I was 16 years old in the park after hours with a stool to peek through the windows. Not a good position to be in, and when you run away, it’s all too easy to find yourself tackled and your head thrown into the ground by a fully-grown man proclaimed by those intelligent people known as the American citizens to be our chief officers responsible for enforcing justice, this situation meaning nothing to them but the paltriest misdemeanor and the faintest fun to have on a quiet Friday night.

I, knowing full well those stories on the news, expected to be beaten violently, perhaps to have my head kicked in and tazered until I knew not what pain meant, and maybe killed afterwards, maybe even in the same second with a quick bullet to the head. None of this happened, of course, but I can tell you I didn’t fear it. Endless paranoia, terror, and misery at what might happen, what will happen, but not one peep for what is happening, what one can do not one single thing about. How could you?

Anyway, from there, Death goes on to detail to us at great length Walter’s relationship with Kugler from fist-fighting rivalry to eventual friendship. This goes on a bit too long in my opinion, but does build up to this:

“Jesus,” Walter said one evening, when they met on the small corner where they used to fight. “That was a time, wasn’t it? There was none of this craziness around. We could never fight like that now.”
Max disagreed. “Yes we could. You can’t marry a Jew, but there’s no law against fighting one.”
Walter smiled. “There’s probably a law
 rewarding it- as long as you win.”

It’s the kind of thing you can really only treat as a joke with very close friends, isn’t it?

And from here the story’s momentum builds very quickly.

Then came November 9. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass.
It was the very incident that destroyed so many of his fellow Jews, but it proved to be Max Vandenburg’s moment of escape. He was twenty-two.

The scene that follows I find confusing. Max’s family are hiding in their apartment on this night and then there’s a lot of build-up to them being forced to open the door to a uniformed Nazi.

This seems like a serious threat, but then it seems to be glossed over and the next bit is very rushed through as Max is shoved into the adjoining room and the world suddenly seems to revolve around him as everyone immediately begins discussing plans to have him in particular moved to a safe hiding location.

Okay, first of all, what exactly was the Nazi’s purpose in pounding on their door? I really wish I knew more of the history behind this time period,
because this comes off as a serious threat but then the Nazi is completely ignored and we don’t even hear about him doing anything after the front door is opened for him. I feel like a complete idiot, but the book feels strangely edited here and moving a bit too quickly to move the plot forward to Max getting smuggled away.

“Max.” It was his mother.
From a drawer, she took an old piece of paper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “If ever…” She held him one last time, by the elbows. “This could be your last hope.”

So the story comes back to Max stuck in the hell-hole of an empty storeroom (one of Kugler’s former workplaces) hiding from persecution for 2 years. As for the rest of his family…..

The remaining Jews with money in the neighborhood were emigrating. The Jews without money were also trying, but without much success. Max’s family fell into the latter category. Walter checked on them occasionally, as inconspicuously as he could. One afternoon, when he visited, someone else opened the door.
When Max heard the news, his body felt it was being screwed up into a ball, like a page littered with mistakes. Like garbage.

That is disturbing just in how little is stated. So I’m guessing the assumption is Max’s entire family was KILLED? Or just moved off to a concentration camp? (For someone whose favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m surprisingly poor on the ambiguity front.)

But at least for Max, as Death already points out:

We already know what was written on that piece of paper:

*** ONE NAME, ONE ADDRESS ***
Hans Hubermann
Himmel Street 33, Molching

Although Kugler and Max are both rather amusingly concerned Hans may be a Nazi, it becomes clear this was all Hans’ plan. Hans agreed to uphold his promise to his friend’s widow when he met with Kugler in 1939 and gave him money. And he then proceeded to give him a map pointing out the direct route from the train station to his front door!

I find myself a bit confused as to why Death seemed to be taunting Hans about his plans backfiring if Max coming to live with them was all part of the plan, but I think the idea is that Hans was not considering the reality of this situation and Death was pointing out that in 7 months he would realize how dangerous this plan had become that seemed so perfect in my mind. I still wonder if they were planning to have Max moved somewhere else or just keep him indefinitely, but I’ll leave it at that.

With another wonderful bit of insight from Death, (“You don’t always get what you wish for. Especially in Nazi Germany“) our story comes full circle and we’re back right where we left off.

Walter was notified that he was being sent to Poland, to continue the assertion of Germany’s authority over both the Poles and Jews alike. One was not much better than the other. The time had come.
Max made his way to Munich and Molching, and now he sat in a stranger’s kitchen, asking for the help he craved and suffering the condemnation he felt he deserved.

No, Max, you really are underestimating the wonders of Hans Hubermann. But on the other hand, Zusak finally took one of my other primary questions about this scene into account.

The girl had been gone quite a while, but now some more footsteps had approached arrival. The wildcard.
In the darkness, all three of them were completely isolated. They all stared. Only the woman spoke.

It’s an amazingly atmospheric ending that leaves us immediately dreading what we almost know is going to come next. And it’s difficult not to gulp as we see this all but confirmed in the title of the following chapter:

THE WRATH OF ROSA

And we begin with the perfect set-up as Liesel awakens again to hear:
Was ist los?

Curiosity got the better of her then, as she imagined a tirade thrown down from the wrath of Rosa. There was definite movement and the shuffle of a chair.

But Markus Zusak expertly plays up the tension to what I will only describe as a bait-and-switch the likes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to make a more lighthearted comparison.

After ten minutes of excruciating discipline, Liesel made her way to the corridor, and what she saw truly amazed her, because Rosa Hubermann was at Max Vandenburg’s shoulder, watching him gulp down her infamous pea soup. Candlelight was standing at the table. It did not waver.
Mama was grave.
Her plump figure glowed with worry.

Unbelievable. This reaction from her is just absolutely jawdropping, and yet it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in real life. We think we know a person so well and then they turn around and do something so unexpected we can’t make any sense out of it.

I can’t even count how many times and how many people this has happened to me with, and I still can’t make complete sense of it there, but looking back on it this isn’t truly out of character for Rosa after all. Almost as soon as she’s being established as a presence in Liesel’s life Death goes out of his way to tell us that she does love Liesel despite it all. And I thought that was shocking then, there, too!

Really, her most unlikable moment was beating Liesel unmercilessly with a spoon, and even after that we see her apologize and show genuine sympathy when she realizes why Liesel had been breaking the rules.

Somehow, though, there was also a look of triumph on her face, and it was not the triumph of having saved another human being from persecution. It was something more along the lines of, See? At least he’s not complaining. She looked from the soup to the Jew to the soup.
When she spoke again, she asked only if he wanted more.
Max declined, preferring instead to rush to the sink and vomit.

Okay, seriously, who says Holocaust novels can’t be hilarious? Because I seriously couldn’t stop laughing the first time I read this. Just, no kidding.

This chapter ends on an absolutely genuine note, though:

Liesel, from the hallway, could see the drawn face of the stranger, and behind it, the worried expression scribbled like a mess onto Mama. She looked at both her foster parents.

Who were these people?

There comes a moment where you really have to ask how much you’re willing to risk and for what cost. It all goes back to my suggestion in my first review of this book that “This is obviously a very cruel world we’re dealing with. Zusak has made that clear”, which has clearly turned out to be far too naive a statement. It could be said of J.K. Rowling’s isolated world of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy, definitely, but I should have expected this because again, I’m a Mad Men megafan and I don’t care less what characters are like as long as they’re interesting and multi-faceted, but I also find I don’t have a clue how other people will react to anything. My aunt just quit re-reading The Casual Vacancy and gave me back my copy because she told me she couldn’t stand spending time with such loathsome people. So it’s just to be expected, considering how extremely more popular this book is, to say the least!

I wouldn’t be surprised if Markus Zusak made the tone so multi-faceted fearing the alienated reaction from people otherwise. It’s the same tactic I believe Steven Spielberg used in Schindler’s List, though I never actually saw that film. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether it’s truly realistic. As Lexie Mollison would say, in the words of Neitzsche philosophy is the biography of the philosopher and what not. I can see it.

And….. those were 2 short chapters, weren’t they? Sandwiched between 2 long chapters of exposition and backstory. Like I said, the book really is slow-paced, but this gave us information well-worth knowing and I’m eager to see what happens now that this new phase of the story has been set up. See you all next time.


 

This post is dedicated to Becky and Caitlin Glimco.

Spread the message! This vandalism must be stopped!

Edit on 1/18/15: I sent for Miracle on 34th Street (1947) off Netflix to see what version arrived. Sure enough, it was the same one I have (obviously a present from long ago I don’t remember receiving) marketed as the “Exclusive Color Version” on VHS.

The original is available on Netflix, though, under the heading of “Black-and-White Version”. So naturally moving forward from the days of VHS, it is clear the color job is simply being held by Netflix as the real schlemiel, so to speak. And I really wonder what director George Seaton and cinematographers Lloyd Ahern and Charles Clarke would think of that, considering this “real deal” was created in 1985 after they died in 1979 and 1983 respectively.

Reviewing All 56 Disney Animated Films And More!

Ok guys I’m upset! Those who read my Scrooge Month got a clear idea of my feelings on the colorization of Black and White movies.  So imagine my shock when I DVR’d the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street on a major channel, AMC, and what do I see but the colorized version.  AMC should be ashamed of themselves!  I’m serious.  Putting out an assault on an artists vision as if it was the original property on national TV is worthy of the strictest censure.

Why do I hate colorized movies so much?  Well, here we go.

The Michael Bay’s of the world consider film a product but I think of it as art, especially how the movie looks.  People could be painters, sculptors or dancers and they chose to work in film.  We would never take a bronze sculpture and tell the artist he should be using jade or…

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I should start off this review by returning to two basic themes I have been trying to get across about this book:

  1. This book is incredibly slow-paced.

I’m sorry, there simply can be no disputing this fact.

First of all, it’s obvious just from the text that we are not well into the main plot yet, and the conflict is still developing very, very slowly. I mean, I didn’t actually know where the book was going to go after Part Two, and Part Three followed by immediately teasing us with details about the plot’s forward motion, and giving us more and more information to try to figure out the story developments.

But what’s more, I am going to admit this right now: I sneaked a peek at the back cover. I thought it was silly not to, considering I am one-hundred-and-fifty-three pages into the book now. The last sentence of the first paragraph in the plot summary reveals that Liesel will continue stealing books, which isn’t really a spoiler, but it also mentions she will steal from the mayor’s wife’s library, which is a shock and I wish had not been printed there!

The next paragraph gives away a big revelation about where this story is going, though: “When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.” Not much of a shock, really, and we still don’t know how Hans started dealing with Max in the first place. I’m getting the impression Hans was inspired by Liesel’s book theft to help Max by mailing him the copy of Mein Kampf to disguise his supplies. But Death took sadistic glee in telling us Hans’ plans would be foiled in November (when Max arrives), so what was Hans actually planning to do with Max? What’s more, I can’t imagine his motives are entirely selfless.

2. This book is written in a decidedly “slice-of-life” format.

Both of these two points are extremely obvious in:

THE ARYAN SHOPKEEPER

The chapter opens with Liesel eating candy outside Frau Diller’s. We are clearly opening in the middle of this adventure, and Death teases us by simply providing to us the words Liesel and her best friend exchange:

*** ANOTHER CONVERSATION ***

BETWEEN RUDY AND LIESEL

“Hurry up, Saumensch, that’s ten already.”

“It’s not, it’s only eight – I’ve got two to go.”

“Well, hurry up, then. I told you we should have gotten a knife

and sawn it in half….Come on, that’s two.”

“All right. Here. And don’t swallow it.”

“Do I look like an idiot?”

[A short pause]

“This is great, isn’t it?”

“It sure is, Saumensch.”

Combined with the dramatically cryptic nature of this, my first idea was that Liesel and Rudy had expanded into candy thievery now, and this would inevitably lead back to book thievery. Zusak then immediately backtracks, however, to show us the full story that led up to this moment.

At the end of August and summer, they found one pfennig on the ground.

Pure excitement.

They’re so happy at this stroke of good luck that they run to buy mixed candy from Frau Diller’s shop. They don’t even stop to think that they might not have enough money, or to recall that Frau Diller is, well, a child-hating mega-bitch.

Frau Diller smiled. Her teeth elbowed each other for room in her mouth, and her unexpected kindness made Rudy and Liesel smile as well. Not for long.

She bent down, did some searching, and came back. “Here,” she said, tossing a single piece of candy onto the counter. “Mix it yourself.”

I wonder if Markus Zusak has read Roald Dahl’s autobiography, because Frau Diller reminds me a great deal of an elderly candy shop owner named Mrs. Pratchett who actually existed in Wales in the early 1920s and was disliked by Dahl and his friends for many reasons, namely that she regularly accused them of plotting thievery, was generally filthy and unkempt, and wouldn’t give a bag of candy unless they spent a lot of money at one time. They later slipped a rat into her candy jar as a prank, and thought she had died, but instead this incident culminated in Dahl and his friends being caned at school while Mrs. Pratchett sat by cheering the headmaster on like a lunatic.

It’s fitting in any case because I sense that he is drawing from real aspects of this time period, and given we are being shown a portrait of Germany in 1940, this just feels particularly authentic.

What’s really clever is how Rudy and Liesel refuse to hate this woman, though, at least not today, and will not allow her to spoil their good mood. They don’t seem to really care what her intentions were, they truly make the best of this deal.

“This,” Rudy announced at one point, with a candy-toothed grin, “is the good life,” and Liesel didn’t disagree. By the time they were finished, both their mouths were an exaggerated red, and as they walked home, they reminded each other to keep their eyes peeled, in case they found another coin.

So we have here a complete reversal of expectations: This chapter does not actually develop the plot at all, but rather acts as a further reminder of what Zusak has been trying to show us throughout our years, that the so-called simple “good old days” are nothing of the kind, and only appear that way when we are young. Many people might be angry at this chapter and call it a waste of time, but I think it serves to make the world appear much more real. It shows that Nazi Germany wasn’t just this evil historical setting and World War II wasn’t the be-all and end-all of this period. This was a time just like today where normal people existed and went about their everyday lives, just like they do now, and if somebody missed that and didn’t get the point of this chapter, the last sentence really hammers this theme into our heads:

The day had been a great one, and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.

What’s worse is I find myself smiling and nodding in unironic agreement. I mean, I feel strange suggesting a person listen to “Penny Lane” while reading a chapter of a Holocaust novel, but try it and tell me it doesn’t amplify the experience.

Also, I’ve wondered sometimes if this book’s structure really fits me dividing the posts up like this, but this really does feel like the prologue for the second half of this part.

THE STRUGGLER, CONTINUED

And naturally, the pace abruptly starts up as the plot begins moving quickly:

We move forward now, to a cold night struggle. We’ll let the book thief catch up later.

We have in fact skipped the events of 2 entire months altogether, as it is now November 3 and we are back with Max on a train leaving Stuttgart.

In front of him, he read from the copy of Mein Kampf. His savior.

It was pretty clear already that Hans sent the book to him, but here we are, there’s the confirmation.

I don’t quite understand this, though:

*** BOOK THIEF PRODUCTIONS ***

OFFICIALLY PRESENTS

Mein Kampf

(My Struggle)

by

Adolf Hitler

This really is a bizarre book, and it must seem even stranger when I just quote little excerpts like this to you. Roger Ebert complained in 1994 that “The workshops don’t seem able to teach you how to write like yourself, but they sure are able to teach you how to write like everyone else. At a time when Hollywood is bashful about originality, it’s a real career asset to be able to write clone screenplays.” Maybe that’s a reason why people like Zusak so much. He really seems to make up his own rules.

I mean, I haven’t been talking about these strange notes that Death keeps making to us and the literary purpose of them, but I don’t even get this one because Hans legally obtained Mein Kampf from the local Nazi party office.

It’s clear why Hans decided to go out of his way to get this specific book and send it to Max, though. Reading Hitler’s book is a good way to avoid being seen as an enemy of the Nazi Party, and Max can have his supplies stored in it, too. So naturally Max spends all his time on the train reading Mein Kampf and exhibiting paranoia about his fellow passengers:

Look proud, he advised himself. You cannot look afraid. Read the book. Smile at it. It’s a great book – the greatest book you’ve ever read. Ignore that woman on the other side. She’s asleep now anyway. Come on, Max, you’re only a few hours away.

Death then, as he did in the last chapter, abruptly backtracks to explain to us what led Max to the place he is now.

As it had turned out, the promised return visit in the room of darkness didn’t take days; it had taken a week and a half. Then another week till the next, and another, until he lost all sense of the passing of days and hours.

Zusak really does make it clear just what optimism means to a person in this position, doesn’t he? Max may have gotten his lucky break, but it’s hard for him to really be ecstatic about it, given the circumstances, especially when Death reveals who Max’s mysterious visitor and gift-giver was.

“I’m leaving soon,” his friend Walter Kugler told him. “You know how it is – the army.”

“I’m sorry, Walter.”

Walter Kugler, Max’s friend from childhood, placed his hand on the Jew’s shoulder. “It could be worse.” He looked his friend in his Jewish eyes. “I could be you.”

This really is heartbreaking, especially when you consider that both Max and Kugler know they may never see each other again. Kugler could easily die in

battle, and the slightest slip-up could result in Max getting killed by the Nazis.

But when Hans sends the book to them, Max has hope. And hope, as any loyal Hunger Games fan knows, is the only thing stronger than fear.

When the door shut, Max opened the book and examined the ticket. Stuttgart to Munich to Pasing. It left in two days, in the night, just in time to make the last connection. From there, he would walk. The map was already in his head, folded in quarters. The key was still taped to the inside cover.

Interestingly enough, the only things Max is given by Walter are tools related to shaving, obviously so that he can change his physical appearance. So perhaps Max has already been fingered by the Nazis, and it will be especially difficult for him to avoid detection.

When he left it, the storeroom was empty but for the floor.

“Goodbye,” he whispered.

The last thing Max saw was the small mound of hair, sitting casually against the wall.

Goodbye.

I can’t communicate just what beautiful writing this is except to show it to you. I mean, Max’s memories of this place obviously wouldn’t be very happy, but still it makes one nervous to be on the cusp of such change in their life, and it’s clear Max is very uncertain about where his path will take him. That seems to be the primary emotion expressed here.

And once Max is actually on the train leaving Stuttgart, this immediately changes to dread:

In his stomach was the electric combination of nourishment and nausea.

He walked to the station.

He showed his ticket and identity card, and now he sat in a small box compartment of the train, directly in danger’s spotlight.

Things basically go off without a hitch, though. He worries about being forced to provide papers, which is a big issue Walter and Hans should probably have tried to do something about. But in the end, he is openly asked for his ticket and the journey proceeds with little incident, and Death expresses open amusement at how Hitler’s book is being used for the exact opposite of Hitler’s intentions.

Some people might find this uninteresting, but it’s clear the conflict and fear in Max’s mind is worse than any real danger could ever present. At least for now, because it’s obvious his fears will eventually be validated at some point in the following three-hundred-and-seventy-seven pages. I’m sure Death would love to give us his “We’ll give him seven months” taunt against Max here. But then he’s still enjoying Hans’ plans close to being thwarted at the moment, which brings me to a big question we still have left.

How are Hans’ plans being thwarted? When he sent Max that book, where was he expecting Max to go with it? Was there really no consultation with him and Walter about this, and were his motives really that selfless when he felt such glee upon his inspiration to send Max the book?

TRICKSTERS

<sigh> I need to be honest: It’s getting difficult to review this book. You see, most books just sit there calmly and just let themselves play out, and you can just dispassionately critique them. But this book wants to open its chapters with sentences like this:

You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy. She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg.

Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying. It’s my job to analyze this book, Death, not you, so butt out.

Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms.

….. Well, all right, but she seems to have moved past that, mostly. And her foster life is a lot better than I thought it would be, Hans Hubermann is still the glory of human beings, and….

Her mother abandoned her.

But anything was better than being a Jew.

It’s not even a joke anymore. I’m not reviewing this book at all. Because Death is literally sitting right behind me, looking over my shoulder, then leaning back and dispassionately critiquing my work. I mean, I’ve always felt books review their readers in a way, but this is just completely literal. I don’t know what to do.

He follows this up by again reminding me how wrong I was to say the chapter where Rosa and Liesel went on their washing errands was pointless, which is especially petty considering I already apologized:

In the time leading up to Max’s arrival, another washing customer was lost, this time the Weingartners.

I still have a slight objection to this line, though:

The obligatory Schimpferei occurred in the kitchen, and Liesel composed herself with the fact that there were still two left, and even better, one of them was the mayor, the wife, the books.

I’ll grant the mayor is probably paying for his wife, but Liesel is doing laundry for three people at this point: Helena Schmidt, Heinz Hermann, and Ilsa Hermann.

And unfortunately she’s also feeding her belly through other, less legal, measures with Rudy and the young “rob-the-rich-to-feed-ourselves” gang.

Every Friday afternoon, he rode his bike to church, carrying goods to the priests.

For a month, they watched him, as good weather turned to bad, and Rudy in particular was determined that one Friday, in an abnormally frosty week in October, Otto wouldn’t quite make it.

It really is disturbing how easily Rudy is adapting to the criminal lifestyle, and it makes it very difficult to like him as he plots to orchestrate a bicycle accident to steal food from a church. What’s especially disgusting is how pathetically he and Liesel rationalize it:

“All those priests,” Rudy explained as they walked through town. “They’re all too fat anyway. They could do without a feed for a week or so.” Liesel could only agree. First of all, she wasn’t Catholic. Second, she was pretty hungry herself.

Such wonderful reasons. You two are proving to be such great protagonists to love and identify with. Really, I’m so proud.

Otto came around the corner, dopey as a lamb.

He wasted no time in losing control of the bike, sliding across the ice, and lying facedown on the road.

This is HORRIFYING. We are literally rooting for the villains here. I have always wondered how people who do terrible things like this can consider themselves good people, and it is such an incredible thing to realize that we are basically being forced to identify with bullying criminals. It pains and shocks me even to read this.

When he didn’t move, Rudy looked at Liesel with alarm. “Crucified Christ,” he said, “I think we might have killed him!”

I am glad he seems upset, but come on. Did he honestly not realize that this could result in serious injury for Otto?

And what’s even more disgusting is the sentence that immediately follows:

He crept slowly out, removed the basket, and they made their getaway.

I don’t actually understand how they were planning to get the basket unless they were anticipating Otto falling unconscious, because it’s just their lucky accident he fell face-down and somehow doesn’t hear their footsteps.

And as soon as Otto manages to stand up and leave, Rudy proceeds to taunt him:

“Stupid Scheisskopf.” Rudy grinned, and they looked through the spoils. Bread, broken eggs, and the big one, Speck. Rudy held the fatty ham to his nose and breathed it gloriously in. “Beautiful.”

And you know what? The only thing I hate more than this is that I do understand it, to an extent. Because when I was a child, my sisters came up with a plan once of walking from house-to-house asking for money to donate to the “church”. Thankfully, when they finally got to the only house where somebody was willing to give them money, my oldest sister had a bout of conscience and returned it, claiming they didn’t need it. Granted, that didn’t stop her from pranking a neighbor by pouring leaves onto his porch and then allowing me to be punished for it. Her favorite pastime as a child seemed to be convincing me to do horrible things and then immediately telling Mom about it. I have one happy memory of running to tell our mother when she was trying to orchestrate a plot to steal newspapers.

But the reason people do things like this is because they see an easy way to get something and don’t care about the morality. And childhood is the most frequent time for this, due to the low level of maturity. But what I especially hate are people like Arthur, who are old enough to know better and make weak attempts to justify themselves in their mind:

“We’ll get the others,” Arthur Berg stated as they made it outside. “We might be criminals, but we’re not totally immoral.” Much like the book thief, he at least drew the line somewhere.

He also tells Rudy to leave the empty basket at Otto’s house, “showing his incongruous moral aptitude“. And I am going to quote the Ninth Doctor: “You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.” You, sir, are brilliant. You, Arthur Berg, are an immoral criminal.

I also hate “protagonist-centered morality” in books. So the only reason I don’t hate Markus Zusak and am not disowning this book as garbage is because he does thankfully realize just what his protagonists are doing, and shows Liesel is obviously more affected than Rudy, as they walk home.

“Do you feel bad?” Liesel finally asked. They were already on the way home.

“About what?”

“You know.”

It surprises me that Rudy eventually admits he does, and after some more pathetic attempts to justify himself, Death thankfully seems to acknowledge this isn’t nearly enough to redeem him by spoiling some more of the story for us:

In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.

It does make me happy to know Rudy will eventually redeem himself, considering how flat-out loathsome he comes across in this chapter. What’s more, that quote is enough to make me love this book because it is so true. The media lumps people into “good guys” and “bad guys”, but in reality we are just human beings, and all of us make immoral decisions on occasion.

In fact, Zusak could easily have ended the chapter on that note, but instead it goes on as Arthur invites them to rob a potato farm almost a week later. What I said about Zusak wasting very little words proves to be extremely true as the book starts to move very quickly:

Twenty-four hours later, Liesel and Rudy braved the wire fence again and filled their sack.

The problem showed up as they made their getaway.

“Christ!” shouted Arthur. “The farmer!”

Doesn’t leave much room for us to be bored, does he? I mean, everyone is fine and coming home from school one minute, then in 7 paragraphs, a farmer is chasing them all with an axe and Rudy is tangled in the wire fence.

“Hey!”

The sound of the stranded.

Thankfully, Liesel does run back to help. It really is dramatic reading, too, as I found myself wondering how they could possibly escape before the farmer caught up with them. The answer confuses me:

“Quick,” he said,” he’s coming.”

Far off, they could still hear the sound of deserting feet when an extra hand grabbed the wire and reefed it away from Rudy Steiner’s pants. A piece was left on the metallic knot, but the boy was able to escape.

“Now move it,” Arthur advised them, not long before the farmer arrived, swearing and struggling for breath. The ax held on now, with force, to his leg.

Arthur had already run far away. And I am assuming he stays on this side of the fence and saves Rudy from there. But the last sentence I’ve quoted is strange because it seemed to be implying Arthur had somehow managed to run back in, get the axe from the farmer, and catch him around the leg with it.

In any case they escape, but Arthur screams out “The name is Owens! Jesse Owens!“, so we likely have to worry about it being traced back to Rudy, as the farmer is determined to catch the criminals who robbed him. Rudy seems to be angry at Arthur because of this afterwards, but we get another confusing passage:

“It’s happened to all of us,” Arthur said, sensing the disappointment. Was he lying? They couldn’t be sure and they would never find out.

What exactly is he lying or not lying about? The fact that they failed at their mission and almost got Rudy caught? Because if he’s trying to say he’s in the same boat with Rudy in regards to the farmer coming after him, this seems to be a complete lie considering Death then proceeds to tell us he leaves for Cologne in a few weeks, whereas Rudy has to stay in Molching indefinitely.

Furthermore, Death really gives us an abrupt tone change as he tells us that they never saw Arthur Berg again after he moved, and describes the last time he met Rudy and Liesel.

I suppose the point is just to acknowledge that even the supporting characters are fully-fledged people in their own right. We don’t tend to think about them much, but Death is trying to remind us Arthur was a person, too. He even gives us this last glimpse of his life:

*** A SMALL TRIBUTE TO ARTHUR BERG, ***

A STILL-LIVING MAN

The Cologne sky was yellow and rotting,

flaking at the edges.

He sat propped against a wall with a child

in his arms. His sister.

When she stopped breathing, he stayed with her,

and I could sense he would hold her for hours.

There were two stolen apples in his pocket.

I haven’t talked about these notes that interrupt/complement the text at all, really, but now I’m starting to feel like they are sheer poetry. This one in particular just creates a whole image of a moment in time that exists outside the narrative. Perhaps these notes are the only way to express certain ideas and get points across.

It reminds me of a part in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where C.S. Lewis randomly interrupted the narrative to tell us in great detail about the only crew member aboard the Dawn Treader who did not eventually sail to the End of the World with Caspian and our heroes. We never really knew him, but Lewis inexplicably decided to show us a glimpse at his personality and how he lived out the rest of his life.

At the end of the half-hour they all came trooping back to Aslan’s Table and stood at one end while Drinian and Rhince went and sat down with Caspian and made their report; and Caspian accepted all the men but that one who had changed his mind at the last moment. His name was Pittencream and he stayed on the Island of the Star all the time the others were away looking for the World’s End, and he very much wished he had gone with them. He wasn’t the sort of man who could enjoy talking to Ramandu and Ramandu’s daughter (nor they to him), and it rained a good deal, and though there was a wonderful feast on the Table every night, he didn’t very much enjoy it. He said it gave him the creeps sitting there alone (and in the rain as likely as not) with those four Lords asleep at the end of the Table. And when the others returned he felt so out of things that he deserted on the voyage home at the Lone Islands, and went and lived in Calormen, where he told wonderful stories about his adventures at the End of the World, until at last he came to believe them himself. So you may say, in a sense, that he lived happily ever after. But he never could bear mice.

Zusak here seems to be telling us Arthur’s fate similarly. It’s sort of like how I’ve always wondered about the personal lives of the henchmen in James Bond films and how their families react to their inevitable deaths, not to mention how MI6 and other agencies sort out the paperwork and funeral matters following the inevitable round of fatalities that occur in every film.

Even though it is doubtful we were going to wonder about whether he survived the war, Death just gives us this glimpse into his life and tells us that he does live through World War II and may even be alive at age 80 in 2005.

It sort of makes us want to know more about him, and realize how little we do know about the random people in our lives, what will happen to them, and the fact that people just wander into our lives and then we never see or hear from them again with absolutely no warning.

This really is a strange book in how it makes random diversions like this and the story abruptly returns to Liesel and Rudy in the present: selling the chestnuts Arthur gave them the last time they met rather than vomiting them up later, and getting their revenge on Frau Diller.

“Mixed candy again?” She schmunzeled, to which they nodded. The money splashed the counter and Frau Diller’s smile fell slightly ajar.

“Yes, Frau Diller,” they said in unison. “Mixed candy, please.”

Flawless, absolutely flawless. But then Death gives us this to end the chapter:

Triumph before the storm.

Nazi Germany is not going to remain a wondrous place. Every part is sort of a story in itself, all building up to a dramatic end-point. Max is almost here to make life more difficult, and I don’t think I should be looking forward to Part Four.

THE STRUGGLER, CONCLUDED

 

It’s fitting that I compared Zusak’s writing to C.S. Lewis’, because the thing they seem to have in common is that they both seem to enjoy writing, namely by doing it in entirely their own way, rather than following the traditional accepted literary methods. The real difference seems to be that Lewis had a lot more fun writing than Zusak, I don’t think he took it nearly as seriously because The Chronicles of Narnia were all written over a few months.

You can tell this in a way because whenever Lewis had to describe something that would be hard for him he would just give a fun little comparison and be done with it. Zusak, by contrast, handles descriptions in the form of comparisons, as well, but primarily through metaphors that are carefully phrased in writing that has obviously been intricately constructed and edited.

Lewis never got nearly so poetic and he usually just spoke in the voice of the narrator to get any idea across. (He even randomly included lines indicating the characters related the story in the future to him at one point, which doesn’t explain how he knew certain details such as the fate of Pittencream.) However, Zusak starts off this closing chapter with writing that is very similar to Lewis:

The juggling comes to an end now, but the struggling does not. I have Liesel Meminger in one hand, Max Vandenburg in the other. Soon, I will clap them together. Just give me a few pages.

I’ve used the name “Zusak” a lot of times when I should technically be referring to Death, but in passages like this it’s very hard to see him as anything else. I do enjoy this kind of writing tremendously. It’s always struck me as much more light and fun to read than formal, dignified, strict writing.

And it really is a good way of setting off the next chapter as he brings us directly to the moment we have been waiting for. It’s obviously November 7 and there is a sense of pure fun in Zusak’s acknowledgement that he is setting the pieces in motion to get the story where he has told us it is going to go.

Naturally, he cuts directly to Max and it’s clear he feels thrilled, on the verge of being triumphant but every nerve in his body is tingling as he realizes the great magnitude of what will happen next.

If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.

Apparently, he actually dared walk off the train from Pasing to Molching:

It was late when he saw the town. His legs ached terribly, but he was nearly there – the most dangerous place to be. Close enough to touch it.

I really can feel all of his emotions. Death’s giving so much of the story away does work well actually, as we realize we are at the point he has told us so much of.

Just as it was described, he found Munich Street and made his way along the footpath.

He is literally so close to the Hubermann house, and our story is about to begin! This is amazing, edge-of-your-seat writing!

Glowing pockets of streetlights.

Dark, passive buildings.

The town hall stood like a giant ham-fisted youth, too big for his age. The church disappeared in darkness the farther his eyes traveled upward.

It all watched him.

I can see it all perfectly. The atmosphere here is so perfectly vivid and tense. We get particularly grim humor from Max as he counts his steps in sets of 13, and after a remarkable 1170 steps (I didn’t really think it was that far from Munich Street to Himmel Street), he makes his way right up to the Hubermann household.

Now he turned on to the side street, making his way to number thirty-three, resisting the urge to smile, resisting the urge to sob or even imagine the safety that might be awaiting him. He reminded himself that this was no time for hope. Certainly, he could almost touch it. He could feel it, somewhere just out of reach. Instead of acknowledging it, he went about the business of deciding again what to do if he was caught at the last moment or if by some chance the wrong person awaited him inside.

I have only read one other Holocaust novel. It was a children’s book named Daniel’s Story, and I read it for school. And even though that book was actually narrated by the Jewish victim and a child no less, I never really felt the horrible mixture of emotions the victims of the Holocaust suffered.

Perhaps the idea is that Death is just fascinated by human emotions, but Zusak’s empathy is so remarkable this really is the first time I find myself getting genuinely angry at Hitler and the Nazis. As horrible as that sounds, I never really saw this as more than sad history until now. And we haven’t even seen Max face any real threat to his life yet! What did he do to deserve any of this? Nothing! WHY WAS THIS ALLOWED TO HAPPEN? Just by reading this, it’s clear Max is a good person:

Of course, there was also the scratchy feeling of sin.

How could he do this?

How could he show up and ask people to risk their lives for him? How could he be so selfish?

I don’t think Max is entirely wrong to feel this way. The Hubermanns are privileged German citizens, but that doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong and they don’t really deserve to be endangered with him.

The part that comes after this is strange, though. There is a pause in the writing and then we get this:

Thirty-three.

They looked at each other.

I’m assuming this is Max’s perspective staring up at the two numbers on the door of 33 Himmel Street, but maybe typing the numbers as numerals would have made the meaning more immediately obvious. (This may have been changed by an editor, ala the unfortunate “nevar” proper spelling instituted by editors in Lewis Carroll’s author note to Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.)

The book does go on to portray Max at the door, and I have to enjoy the sad authenticity in Zusak’s writing:

From his pocket, he pulled out the key. It did not sparkle but lay dull and limp in his hand. For a moment, he squeezed it, half expecting it to come leaking toward his wrist. It didn’t. The metal was hard and flat, with a healthy set of teeth, and he squeezed it till it pierced him.

Something that allows you to open the door to the house of privileged German citizens who will care for you may sound like a magical object, but pick up any key and put it in your hand. This is the exact experience you will have, no matter who you are.

And I love that this third part ends just before we see Max make the final step that will mean so much more than hard and flat metal teeth:

Slowly, then, the struggler leaned forward, his cheek against the wood, and he removed the key from his fist.

This raises a lot of questions, really. Death made it pretty clear Max showing up at Hans’ door wasn’t what he had wanted in April, which is why it surprised me that he sent the door key of his house. So what was the plan, and how did it end up getting ruined/sidetracked by Max’s arrival at 33 Himmel?

I frequent the blogs of people who tear apart the Hunger Games trilogy, The Fault in Our Stars, and the first Harry Potter book and talk about how people are too non-critical and afraid to challenge what they read. I do feel I could have been harder on Rowling in my Casual Vacancy 

reviews, but I simply can’t feel guilty for praising this. Anyone who complains about emotions being ignored and reduced to “I didn’t even know how to react, I just felt empty” in books would love this. It’s amazingly emotional writing.

This was a fairly short set of chapters and I find myself getting goosebumps thinking about Part Four, in fact. I get the feeling we’re going to get a lot of explanations as soon as Max goes in to meet the Hubermanns, and I can’t wait to see Rosa’s reaction.


 

This is a Holocaust novel.

Listen to “Penny Lane” while reading “The Aryan Shopkeeper”.

Tell me I am depraved. Go on, do it.

Hello, and welcome again! It’s good to be back. I apologize for the long delay. I hope to not keep you waiting nearly as long in the future (well, to the few people who actually care about these reviews), but there were matters in my personal life I had to attend to. Not to mention, I’m ashamed of it and I really am unhappy with this arrangement, but somehow I always find myself caught up in reading multiple books at once. As it is, here is the arrangement:

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

11/22/63 by Stephen King

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (re-read)

I know, I know! It’s not right to get caught up in so many at once because a critic should only focus on analyzing one book at a time, yada yada yada. I agree completely, and I don’t know how this even keeps happening.

But rest assured, I am not thinking of any of those books right now. I only have my mind on this one, and my main thought is this: Where does the story go from here?

I mentioned at the end of the last review I didn’t know what was coming next, and that really is true. This is a very strange thing to say, because that’s the way it works with most books, but Zusak consistently dropped so much foreshadowing into the book to lay a neat road-map to Hitler’s birthday that I feel empty now that it’s all over and done with.

He has been hinting for quite a while at someone showing up at the Hubermann doorstep with something related to Hans’ past, but his last expansion on this gave the date as “the early hours of a November morning“. So this is still 7 months to come. Somehow I doubt Zusak is going to skip half a year entirely, but what is going to happen before then?

The subtitles for this part aren’t much help. The actual title of Part Three is “mein kampf“, which baffled me because… well, how is Hitler’s book going to drive the plot of 8 chapters and 7 months? It was only just yesterday, when watching a video review of The Book Thief’s first 2 parts*, that I realized that both of the first 2 parts were named after the important book that Liesel stole in them. I immediately felt ashamed for not noticing this myself.

The subtitle is

featuring:
the way home – a broken woman – a struggler – a juggler – the attributes of summer – an aryan shopkeeper – a snorer – two tricksters – and revenge in the shape of mixed candy

I don’t have a clue what to make of any of this. These are the most incomprehensible “clues” he has given us yet.

THE WAY HOME

And the opening of this chapter just left me immediately more confused:

Mein Kampf.

The book penned by the Führer himself.

I’ve talked about how idiosyncratic Zusak’s writing is, but one of the more controversial aspects of it I have been ignoring for quite some time, but I can do so no longer: He does not always use complete sentences. The book is written in a very conversational style, almost as Death is just sitting in front of us telling us the story, which is fine, but it seems like a violation of basic writing that so much of these sentences do not form complete ideas. They’re just sentence fragments, including the very first sentence of the entire book! I’m sorry. You can defend it and explain to me why I am wrong, but I just had to say that.

Death confuses me even further by stating that Liesel did not actually steal Mein Kampf (so will some parts just be named after a book Liesel happens to obtain, rather than steal, then?), and then offers us some vague hints at how she does get it before thankfully dropping us back into the scene with Hans and Liesel walking home on Hitler’s birthday.

As the ending of the last chapter was leading up to, Liesel cannot stand being burned by the book. It might make sense to just beat it out with her fist through the shirt, but instead she takes it out and juggles it from hand to hand.

Papa: “what the hell do you call that?”
He reached over and grabbed hold of 
The Shoulder Shrug.

Well, I was hoping Liesel could keep the book without anyone else noticing, but it’s pretty obvious this isn’t a big deal. I mean, as he proceeds to acknowledge through casual joking, Hans already kept her secret after finding the first book, right?

Something very strange and very interesting does proceed to happen, though:

Like most humans in the grip of revelation, Hans Hubermann stood with a certain numbness. The next words would either be shouted or would not make it past his teeth. Also, they would most likely be a repetition of the last thing he’d said, only moments earlier.
“Of course.”
This time, his voice was like a fist, freshly banged on the table.
The man was seeing something. He was watching it quickly, end to end, like a race, but it was too high and too far away for Liesel to see.

This really is great writing. I am intrigued, as immediately we begin to see how something could be set up to get to that strange event in November.

And I really love everything about how it’s written. Nothing is illustrated in an especially conventional way in this book. (In fact, during the break between posts, I actually read this chapter multiple times just to admire how it flows.)

What marvelous act was Hans Hubermann about to produce from the thin Munich Street air?
Before I show you, I think we should first take a look at what he was seeing prior to his decision. 

*** PAPA’S FAST-FACED VISIONS ***
First, he sees the girl’s books: The Grave Digger’s Handbook, Faust the Dog, The Lighthouse, and now The Shoulder Shrug. Next is a kitchen and a volatile Hans Junior, regarding those books on the table, where the girl often reads. He speaks: “And what trash is this girl reading?” His son repeats the question three times, after which he makes his suggestion for more appropriate reading material.

This really does come out of nowhere, but that’s what fills me with excitement. I mean, I can see how this “spoiling” is a legitimate literary method now. I could have quit reading after the last chapter, but how could I do that now? Hans has never seemed the type to come up with zany schemes, and hell, I don’t even understand what is motivating him, so what is going on?
The only real part of his strange, mysterious plan that we see set in motion in this chapter is that he goes to the Nazi Party office in the first few days of May and obtains a used copy of Mein Kampf.

“Happy reading,” said one of the party members.
“Thank you.” Hans nodded.

It’s good to see that it will be coming into play somehow. Already, the foreshadowing at the start of this chapter makes perfect sense, but all I can really get is that Hans’ plan is likely going to involve stealing books. But I don’t have a clue why he feels this is necessary.

From the street, he could still hear the men inside. One of the voices was particularly clear. “He will never be approved,” it said, “even if he buys a hundred copies of Mein Kampf.” The statement was unanimously agreed upon.

My first reaction to this was to smile, but I quickly realized that this is not a good thing at all to have the Nazis thinking of Hans this way. And it’s very strange. I mean, is it really that obvious to all the local party officials that Hans has no support for Hitler’s cause? He doesn’t seem to be very vocal about his beliefs, but it’s not a good thing that he seems to be labeled as staunchly against the government in any case.

We also get a hint at his motivations here:

Hans held the book in his right hand, thinking about postage money, a cigaretteless existence, and the foster daughter who had given him this brilliant idea.

So he wants to come up with a solution to their aforementioned cash problems. But will stealing books really get them that much? And aren’t there better ideas that don’t involve breaking the law?

Also somehow I imagined this vivid scene taking place on a bright early morning (it helped I read it for the first time on a bright early morning driving up to Springfield), but then I remembered Death said “The book showed up at 33 Himmel Street perhaps an hour after Liesel had drifted back to sleep from her obligatory nightmare“.

I should acknowledge some other foreshadowing Zusak has been doing, too:

There must have been a good share of mixed feelings at that moment, for Hans Hubermann’s idea had not only sprung from Liesel, but from his son. Did he already fear he’d never see him again?

I ignored it completely in my review back then, but after he left Himmel Street, Death gave heavy foreshadowing of Hans, Jr. dying at Stalingrad. I’ve noticed the book has been surprisingly free of actual death so far except for the opening, despite the setting and, well, the fact that the book is narrated by Death. It doesn’t mean much to me knowing that Hans, Jr. will probably die because he was in the story so little, but it disturbs me that Zusak seems to be willing to give away that kind of information because I don’t know what to expect at all, or how I’d feel about suddenly having that dropped on me.

The chapter ends on a very intriguing note:

On the other hand, he was also enjoying the ecstasy of an idea, not daring just yet to envision its complications, dangers, and vicious absurdities. For now, the idea was enough. It was indestructible. Transforming it into reality, well, that was something else altogether. For now, though, let’s let him enjoy it.
We’ll give him seven months.
Then we come for him.
And oh, how we come.

I feel unprofessional again, but well, how could I possibly quit reading now? I’m hooked! This is exactly what I was looking for. I don’t have a clue what is going to happen, but it seems like he honestly is replying in the story to everything I say here!

THE MAYOR’S LIBRARY

Death begins by clarifying the obvious:

Certainly, something of great magnitude was coming toward 33 Himmel Street, to which Liesel was currently oblivious.

He then gives us a bit of a surprise, however:

Someone had seen her.
The book thief reacted. Appropriately.

All right, so it seems that it wasn’t Rudy, after all. Well, it’s good to know that some lasting drama has come out of that, after all. And Zusak portrays Liesel’s paranoia very realistically.

For Liesel, the paranoia itself became the punishment, as did the dread of delivering some washing to the mayor’s house. It was no mistake, as I’m sure you can imagine, that when the time came, Liesel conveniently overlooked the house on Grande Strasse. She delivered to the arthritic Helena Schmidt and picked up at the cat-loving Weingartner residence, but she ignored the house belonging to Bürgermeister Heinz Hermann and his wife, Ilsa.

*** ANOTHER QUICK TRANSLATION ***
Bürgermeister = mayor

Note, however, that he makes a clear separation between “paranoia” and “dread”, as if to suggest that there is a point where paranoia ends for Liesel, and it becomes clear roughly who saw her.

And, Markus Zusak, I watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) many a Christmas as a child, so I know exactly what “bürgermeister” means, thank you very much.

After the path, there were eight steps up to the main entrance of the house, and the great door was like a monster. Liesel frowned at the brass knocker.
“What are you waiting for?” Rudy called out.
Liesel turned and faced the street. Was there any way, any way at all, for her to evade this? 

This is masterful tension-building, though I’ll admit at being surprised that Liesel is doing everything she can not to let on the source of her fear to Rudy. I know for a fact Death mentioned him being involved in her future book-thieving escapades, so she is obviously going to confide in him eventually.

It helps with the tension, though, as we are on the edge of our seat until our fear is abruptly ended, and we can sigh in relief like Liesel:

At first, she didn’t look at the woman but focused on the washing bag in her hand. She examined the drawstring as she passed it over. Money was handed out to her and then, nothing. The mayor’s wife, who never spoke, simply stood in her bathrobe, her soft fluffy hair tied back into a short tail. A draft made itself known. Something like the imagined breath of a corpse. Still there were no words, and when Liesel found the courage to face her, the woman wore an expression not of reproach, but utter distance. For a moment, she looked over Liesel’s shoulder at the boy, then nodded and stepped back, closing the door.

I will note an error, though, that remains here despite Markus Zusak’s scrupulous editing: Rosa ordered Liesel, “…if you don’t come home with the washing, don’t come home at all“. Yet Liesel has handed over the washing to the mayor’s wife now and before that there was a paragraph dedicated to why Liesel wouldn’t let Rudy handle the washing bag on the way there. I don’t know how that one passed him and his editors by unnoticed.

I will note also that he included one, and only one solitary hint as to the shadow’s identity before this chapter:

Perhaps the woman hadn’t seen her steal the book after all. It had been getting dark. Perhaps it was one of those times when a person appears to be looking directly at you when, in fact, they’re contentedly watching someone else or simply daydreaming. 

When Frau Hermann was introduced, she was described as having “hair like fluff“, to match up with the shadow’s “fluffy hair“, though it’s doubtful anyone would remember a random description made eighty pages ago.

He does write very beautiful sentences, too:

Eleven-year-old paranoia was powerful. Eleven-year old relief was euphoric.

Before promptly ruining them with:

*** A LITTLE SOMETHING TO ***

DAMPEN THE EUPHORIA

She had gotten away with nothing.

The mayor’s wife had seen her, all right.

She was just waiting for the right moment.

OH MY GOD WHY. I CANNOT BELIEVE THESE WORDS ARE PRINTED HERE. WHY ARE YOU SUCH A SADIST. WHY DO YOU LOVE TORTURING US SO MUCH. GOOD FUCKING GOD JESUS CHRIST.

He then just passes through the next few weeks in 6 1-sentence paragraphs! And he writes “Reading The Shoulder Shrug between two and three o’clock each morning, post-nightmare, or during the afternoon, in the basement.” without telling us what this book is actually about, even though Liesel and Hans obviously know perfectly well! And then he just skips through “Another benign visit to the mayor’s house.” just to get to:

All was lovely.
Until.

GOOD GOD SADIST SADIST WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

He, of course, immediately hurls us into the following scene:

When Liesel next visited, minus Rudy, the opportunity presented itself. It was a pickup day.
The mayor’s wife opened the door and she was not holding the bag, like she normally would. Instead, she stepped aside and motioned with her chalky hand and wrist for the girl to enter.

She then leaves and comes back holding a pile of books, and invites Liesel into the house. Naturally, Liesel assumes the worst:

She’s going to torture me, Liesel decided. She’s going to take me inside, light the fireplace, and throw me in, books and all. Or she’ll lock me in the basement without any food.

And though there is palpable dread and tension, I had my doubts here. Would Zusak really do exactly what he’s been building to (when he hasn’t let us in on the outcome)? I had my own idea of what might follow. But surely Markus Zusak wouldn’t allow me to feel happiness like that? Surely he wouldn’t allow such light to penetrate these pages, would he……..

The mayor’s wife was not deterred. She only looked briefly behind and continued on, to a chestnut-colored door. Now her face asked a question.
Are you ready?

……………………………………………………..He does.

“Jesus, Mary…”

She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen. 

He actually DOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

With wonder, she smiled.
That such a room existed!
Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise.

I don’t think I can communicate how brilliant this is. I feel so sorry for calling him a sadist, but he was. He built up so much happiness, then continually destroyed it only to let us and his characters bask in undiluted misery.

That’s been his consistent trend through 134 pages, and here he finally subverts it and gives us what we always wanted. And in a way I feel that it is also a subversion of novelistic expectations. Having the mayor’s wife throw Liesel in jail would be exciting. It would further the plot. And so would having her whipped like Gale in Catching Fire, or any number of horrible outcomes for her. But which do/should we really WANT? It’s uncomfortable to think about what sadists authors have turned us into, when fiction has the power to make us creatures of great empathy.

In a world where authority figures are feared by children, Liesel especially having become accustomed to this by the nuns at her school, the mayor’s wife is willing to let the rules slip just to send Liesel this small message to show her she has a friend, someone who understands her love for books. In a way it shows even people within the government from time to time can be resentful of the duties their higher-ups require them to perform. And it’s so rare that this happens that it makes this book all the more heartwarming and dare I say, life-affirming.

And the page that follows is pure beauty the likes of The Secret Garden (I am genuinely reminded of Ben’s tear-stained salute to Colin in the garden), and I know Markus Zusak did travel back in time to read my blog, and Markus, I’m sorry I thought you were 100% heartless. Though I know there is plenty of death to come, that the story ends with a lot of death, Liesel herself may likely die at the end, so I may end up apologizing for that, too.

But this is really a celebration of books, more than anything else. It’s easy to see why book lovers love this so much: because it’s a celebration of a love for literature, and it actually manages to do just that quite literally within the text. Many biblophiles may love it for this scene alone. As a biblophile, I would feel uncomfortable at the thought of someone not loving the book.

And what I particularly love is that Liesel doesn’t even read any of the books. This might seem silly to rational types, but it’s the idea that counts, the perfection that you appreciate and don’t want to interrupt:

It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them. They were too perfect.
To her left, she saw the woman again, standing by a large desk, still holding the small tower against her torso. She stood with a delighted crookedness. A smile appeared to have paralyzed her lips.
“Do you want me to-?”
Liesel didn’t finish the question but actually performed what she was going to ask, walking over and taking the books gently from the woman’s arms. She then placed them into the missing piece in the shelf, by the slightly open window. 

Many authors would have had Liesel stop and read some of the books, but Zusak leaves her with this beautiful experience. Liesel knows that’s all the mayor’s wife intended her to have, that it would be enough, and so she goes on her way, having to try three times to leave, and then standing for several minutes in the hallway doing nothing.

And as she walks home she can do nothing but replay the entire experience in her mind. It’s amazing how well both emotions are evoked, hers and ours.

But then we see Liesel realize how little she repayed the woman’s generosity:

Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself.
“You said nothing.” Her head shook vigorously, among the hurried footsteps. “Not a ‘goodbye.’ Not a ‘thank you.’ Not a ‘that’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.’ Nothing!” Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didn’t mean she should have no manners at all. It didn’t mean she couldn’t be polite.

But we will have no regret, no sour emotions to tide off this chapter. She runs back and thanks her, despite the mayor himself being there, undoubtedly very surprised by this seemingly excessive display of gratitude for the washing (at least I assume that’s what he thinks).

The mayor’s wife bruised herself again. Coming forward to stand beside her husband, she nodded very faintly, waited, and closed the door.
It took Liesel a minute or so to leave.
She smiled at the steps.

And that’s it, that’s the note our chapter ended on, for all the dread, suspense, and exhibition of the worst in human nature that led up to it. We end on a moment of unsolicited generosity, compassion, gratitude, and human empathy.

All that seems to be ignored and very difficult to find as wars play out.

I suppose I should have expected moments like this, though, considering that people like this book so much more than The Casual Vacancy. There were very few gleams of hope even at the end to interrupt that novel’s unrelenting cynicism, and people do not seem to respond well to that.

I, being a cynical Mad Men mega-fan who feels the ending to “Commissions and Fees” is a beautiful summation of life and the human condition, don’t tend to mind this kind of tale at all, but even I can’t help adoring this. If the central idea of Mad Men as spelled out by Don Draper is “What’s happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness”, then perhaps Markus Zusak’s idea is “What’s happiness? It’s a moment that you have had if you had it, it’s a moment your life was wholly and undeniably worth living because you had it”.

ENTER THE STRUGGLER

Many authors spend time and eternity puzzling over how best to introduce new characters into a plot and get the story going in new, interesting places.

Markus Zusak shakes his head and laughs at those authors. For you see, when you have Death as your friendly neighborhood narrator, you can just start off your next chapter like this:

Now for a change of scenery.
We’ve both had it too easy till now, my friend, don’t you think? How about we forget Molching for a minute or two?
It will do us some good.
Also, it’s important to the story.

And it’s times like this we are forced to remember that this is a story narrated by Death. It’s amazing the abrupt tonal shift this chapter is from the previous one. There is little conventional about Zusak’s writing. And doesn’t it feel like he’s just reaching through time and space to taunt me personally in the second line? I guess Zusak is conceding that in the end…. we just need some more happiness.

It gets worse:

*** A GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING ***
To your left,
perhaps your right,
perhaps even straight ahead,
you find a small black room.
In it sits a Jew.
He is scum.
He is starving.
He is afraid.
Please – try not to look away.

Death has taken us to the city of Stuttgart (unlike Molching, this is a non-fictional city, surprisingly enough). This Jew is being sheltered in a secret storage room in protection from the Holocaust.

It was the best place, they decided. It’s harder to find a Jew in the dark.

So the man is being sheltered here in the protection of either an organization of Jews, or an anti-Hitler resistance force. I had been wondering how the Holocaust would affect our characters in this book, since Liesel and the Hubermanns are privileged German citizens. Death had been mentioning a “Jewish fist-fighter” from the beginning, but even without that it seems obvious a Jew was going to come into play somewhere. In a way, I’m ashamed of Zusak for resorting to such an easy and overused plot device, but it’s obvious something needs to drive the conflict as we move through the war, and I suppose this is obviously best to depict the reality of the times. And depict this reality he does:

There was sleep, starving sleep, and the irritation of half awakeness, and the punishment of the floor.
Ignore the itchy feet.
Don’t scratch the soles.
And don’t move too much.
Just leave everything as it is, at all cost. It might be time to go soon. Light like a gun. Explosive to the eyes. It might be time to go. It might be time, so wake up. Wake up now, Goddamn it! Wake up.

Some readers may criticize the tonal change in this book as too abrupt, but I think it goes to demonstrate something very well: Think of how Liesel being bullied at school formed the climax of our first part, but by the end of the second part, both she and the boy involved realized it didn’t matter anymore and quietly made amends.

It is remarkable just how privileged Liesel and the Hubermanns are in their sheltered existence as middle-class Germans, when you look at this Jewish man. Liesel has been having nightmares, sure, but she has a wonderful foster father. This is nothing compared to the hell that marks this innocent man’s every waking hour, and what’s worse is that there is next to nothing that he can do to alleviate his suffering anymore and he did absolutely nothing to deserve it at all. Zusak pours his all into portraying just how nightmarish and paranoia-inducing his life is, brilliantly through his style of writing that relies on vivid sensory details (furthered by the sentence fragments) that break from orthodox, detached writing that describes everything professionally and analytically. In fact, he does it so well that it actually becomes physically uncomfortable to read.

Death really spells out the privilege Liesel has in her regular nightly comfortings from Hans in this one passage, in particular:

“Max,” [a voice] whispered. “Max, wake up.”
His eyes did not do anything that shock normally describes. No snapping, no slapping, no jolt. Those things happen when you wake from a bad dream, not when you wake
 into one.

A man has arrived, but only briefly. He mentions a man with an identity card, says he is concerned about being watched, and leaves Max with the identity card and a key inside a book, along with a small amount of food, then leaves, saying he will be back in a few days. Apparently, Max already has a map and directions for where he needs to go. We don’t know where this is yet, and it is also noteworthy that Death does not mention who this man is and gives next to no physical description, so that’s one mystery we still have at this point.

Things start to make sense at the end, though:

“Please,” he said. “Please.”
He was speaking to a man he had never met. As well as a few other important details, he knew the man’s name. Hans Hubermann. 

This isn’t very surprising, considering how much Death foreshadowed someone coming in November and the frequent mentions of Hans caring for and coming up with a plan to help a “Jewish fist fighter”. In fact, I believe Max’s last name “Vandenburg” was actually given at some point prior, even though it isn’t mentioned here.

It does prove Hans is not the man who came to see Max, but this was unlikely from the beginning due to this setting being more than a hundred miles away.

And in any case the story is brought full circle with this line and now we have a good idea of the exciting new direction this story is about to go in.

THE ATTRIBUTES OF SUMMER

Death opens with a matter-of-fact summing up of the events that have preceded, and brings us right back to Liesel, informing us of how she spent her summer back in her heavily sterilized world on Himmel Street.

For the book thief, the summer of that year was simple. It consisted of four elements, or attributes. At times, she would wonder which was the most powerful.

So we have all in one, the title for this chapter and its road map:

*** AND THE NOMINEES ARE… ***
1. Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
2. Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
3. Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
4. The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.

The second event is surprising enough, and I’m conflicted about how I feel about it. because I really did feel it would be stronger to have Liesel only allowed to experience the library in that one scene, and to have that one event make such a long-lasting impact on her that she didn’t need to actually read any of the books. However, I don’t know where Zusak is going to take this story in this area, and I am willing to wait and see if the events surrounding this become so important to the overall plot that it was 100% necessary for Liesel to make extended visits.

The fourth “nominee” just leaves me shocked and confused, actually. The best we can get of Hans’ plan is that it involves this Jewish man, though it’s obvious Hans had been helping him for some time and it’s still very unclear how Liesel gave him an inspiration for a plan apparently involving Max. I don’t see what real motivation Liesel has at this point to continue stealing, either, or how it could help Max. In fact, it seems strange that something apparently relating to this plan is going to come up, considering Max won’t arrive until November.

I suppose Zusak is actually using his “spoiling/foreshadowing” well at this point in the narrative because unlike the last part, where he simply gave us all the basic information of what would happen in the end, he’s included so much foreshadowing that I am dying to figure out what happens next, but at the same time he made it all so vague that I don’t feel I have any way of accurately guessing other than to read on. So let’s do that.

I got the impression Death was going to be vague about The Shoulder Shrug and not give us any idea as to its actual contents. In fact, at this point, I had given up all hope of learning “exactly what kind of threat this book posed to the hearts and minds of the German people“, but I was nevertheless pleased to get our answer:

The protagonist was a Jew, and he was presented in a positive light.

Unforgivable. 

I can’t help but chuckle at the meta nature of this, because we just got through reading a chapter of THIS book where a Jew was presented in a positive light, and Death’s last line is an obvious self-referential wink at that fact.

And am I catching him praising his own sensory details here?

In the early part of summer in Molching, as Liesel and Papa made their way through the book, this man was traveling to Asterdam on business, and the snow was shivering outside. The girl loved that- the shivering snow. “That’s exactly what it does when it comes down,” she told Hans Hubermann. 

We get a straightforward demonstration of the difference between Liesel and Max’s nights here, as Liesel only grows more fond of her foster father and we get this bitter update on Hans, Jr.:

She often heard him and Mama discussing his lack of work or talking despondently about Hans going to see their son, only to discover that the young man had left his lodging and was most likely already on his way to war.

I gather it will be in 1942 or 1943 that he dies, too. Shame his last words to Hans will be “You coward”. I’m sure Death will remind us of that when he does meet his inevitable end at Stalingrad. (You know, I do this sometimes with TV shows that are spoiled for me, think bitterly about how close a person is on their path to death or so on, and it feels so strange to be encouraged to do this, and left with no real other option.)

But forget that! Let’s bring back that checklist!

  • Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
  • Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
  • Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
  • The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.

Liesel has obviously been visiting the library for some time, and surprisingly she’s still being completely secretive to Rudy about this. Oh, and Death is taunting me for my earlier stupidity:

Saukerl,” she laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that he was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think that’s as close to love as eleven-year-olds can get.

All right, I’m a complete idiot for saying Rudy was romantically interested in Liesel! I KNOW, I KNOW. SHUT UP AND STOP TAUNTING ME!

We then learn Liesel has made 3 previous visits to the library and it was thankfully the mayor’s wife who suggested that she read one. There isn’t very much happiness revolving around the books, either. Frau Hermann’s strange, quiet, emotional state was notable throughout that previous chapter, too, but here it comes front and center:

On this occasion, as Liesel stood in the cool surrounds of the room, her stomach growled, but no reaction was forthcoming from the mute, damaged woman. She was in her bathrobe again, and although she observed the girl several times, it was never for very long. She usually paid more attention to what was next to her, to something missing. 

And on her next visit, we get an answer when Liesel finds the name Johann Hermann written on a picture book and inquires as to his identity.

“He is nothing now in this world,” she explained. “He was my…”

Naturally, we get some beautiful writing that takes full advantage of this story’s unique perspective:

*** THE FILES OF RECOLLECTION ***
Oh, yes, I definitely remember him.
The sky was murky and deep like quicksand.
There was a young man parceled up in barbed wire,
like a giant crown of thorns. I untangled him and carried him
out. High above the earth, we sank together,
to our knees. It was just another day, 1918.

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t anticipating this revelation, honestly. This woman had clearly been unhappy and emotionally crippled by something. She showed that by just how quiet and sad she’d been in every scene. If you go back, it’s easy to see Zusak laying the pieces for where the story would go at any moment with her being introduced by Rosa as “…sit[ting] at home all day, too mean to light a fire… Absolutely. Crazy.” and being described as having a “posture of defeat“. It’s amazing how even the smallest details become important later on, similar to J.K. Rowling. I mean, he even referred to her as a “broken woman” 2 chapters ago and in the subtitle of this part, but I still ignored that because I didn’t want to see anything dampen Liesel’s happiness.

Death just spells out what Liesel has to learn from this woman, also:

The point is, Ilsa Hermann had decided to make suffering her triumph. When it refused to let go of her, she succumbed to it. She embraced it.
She could have shot herself, scratched herself, or indulged in other forms of self-mutilation, but she chose what she probably felt was the weakest option-to at least endure the discomfort of the weather. For all Liesel knew, she prayed for summer days that were cold and wet. For the most part, she lived in the right place.

This really is amazingly similar to the message of The Secret Garden, and it does a lot to explain what we’ve seen so far. The book is very grim right down to its narrator and has such dark writing at times, yet it also seems very light, pleasant, and human most of the time, too. Death was probably trying to show life for what it really is. Not a totally evil, unforgiving place, but something that is mixed, and happiness can be found even in the worst of times. Which explains why we keep getting happiness periodically ruined by soul-crushing sadness. Liesel is getting cushioned from the war for now, but as it becomes a living hell for everyone, she will have to find something to live for, and Frau Hermann serves as a reminder of why. Perhaps she’s even showing Liesel these books because she senses Liesel has that opportunity that she herself is incapable of, in fact.

She tries to deny that Liesel did anything wrong in bringing it up, at any rate. And Death then seems to be pointing out Liesel doesn’t have all that much privilege but will need to rely on words as her main weapon, and we get some new foreshadowing:

And how awful (and yet exhilarating!) it would feel many months later, when she would unleash the power of this newfound discovery the very moment the mayor’s wife let her down. How quickly the pity would leave her, and how quickly it would spill over into something else completely….

Wow. I really am not liking where it sounds like this is going to go. It’s actually fairly shocking, in fact. But, as Death (who seems increasingly to be speaking directly to me personally) points out:

That was all. It was part two of her existence that summer.

  • Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
  • Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
  • Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
  • The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.

Part three, thank God, was a little more lighthearted-Himmel Street soccer.

He gives us a nice brief depiction of this time in his short sensory images, but really I don’t care much whether the story is “lighthearted” or not anymore. I’m sick of this endless game, and I’m not going to think about it anymore.

This “third attribute” of the summer is actually very short because the only thing plot-relevant Zusak can really bring to it is to show Liesel trying to settle things with Tommy Müller now in the aftermath of peace with Ludwig Schmeikl.

I enjoyed how terrified Tommy is of her, but I find it a bit strange Liesel was so eager to make up.

“How could I know you were smiling for me that day?” she asked him repeatedly.

I don’t see why it really matters. It seemed like no one was standing up for Liesel being bullied and everyone except Rudy was basically laughing at her. So Liesel beating up Tommy for smiling seemed to be anger at his hypocrisy, since he was obviously just enjoying seeing a fight.

  • Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
  • Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
  • Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
  • The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.

I will say that Zusak is very good at depicting the simple world of childhood, and this continues as we get into “part four, summer 1940“. Times are getting worse due to rationing and their families not having enough money, so Rudy is very hungry. The story takes a brief tangent from this point when Liesel tries to learn to swim in the Amper River.

“Come on,” Rudy coaxed her in. “Just here. It isn’t so deep here.” She couldn’t see the giant hole she was walking into and sank straight to the bottom. Dog-paddling saved her life, despite nearly choking on the swollen intake of water.

I can’t be the only one reading this who was reminded of Carl falling through the hollow board in the opening of Up, but also my own sister nearly drowned like this in the public pool and given she had to be saved by a lifeguard, I’m inclined to question whether dogpaddling would work so easily. Also, it just seems strange, and… 

He called after her. “Does this mean I don’t get a kiss for teaching you?”

Saukerl!”

The nerve of him!

Good God, I thought we were done with all that nonsense after Rudy comforted her about her brother’s death! But thankfully, we move on to the development of the actual stealing. We get a very vivid re-creation of peer pressure and the sort of horrible gangs kids can form (though I find it strange and horrifying they would accept 6-year-olds) as they convince a group of young apple thieves to help them and the story moves very quickly.
Also, one of them is Ludwig Schmeikl’s brother, so we get this absolutely wonderful and hilarious bit:

“Isn’t this the one who beat up your brother, Andel?” Word had certainly made its way around. A good hiding transcends the divides of age.
Another boy – one of the short, lean ones – with shaggy blond hair and ice-colored skin, looked over. “I think so.”
Rudy confirmed it. “It is.”
Andy Schmeikl walked across and studied her, up and down, his face pensive before breaking into a gaping smile. “Great work, kid.” He even slapped her among the bones of her back, catching a sharp piece of shoulder blade. “I’d get whipped for it if I did it myself.”

Zusak, you remember sibling rivalry too well. This could easily be me or either of my sisters back when we were young children.

It surprises me very much, however, that this has nothing to do with book thievery. Considering the title of this book, you’d expect Zusak to cram some further book thievery in there somewhere, but no, they just steal the apples and happily eat them, in a scene very akin to the short story “A Quarter’s Worth of Fireworks”.

  • Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
  • Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
  • Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
  • The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.

That afternoon, before they returned home, Liesel and Rudy consumed six apples apiece within half an hour. At first, they entertained thoughts of sharing the fruit at their respective homes, but there was considerable danger in that. They didn’t particularly relish the opportunity of explaining just where the fruit had come from. Liesel even thought that perhaps she could get away with only telling Papa, but she didn’t want him thinking that he had a compulsive criminal on his hands. So she ate.

It is sad to see two good kids turning to crime like this. I think even Hans would be very ashamed and angry if he learned about their criminal activities. And fittingly the chapter ends with Liesel getting bad consequences in the form of vomiting basically all of them over dinner, though it matters little:

Quickly, [Rosa] turned back to face the vomiting Saumensch. “Well? What is it? What is it, you filthy pig?”
But Liesel?
She said nothing.
The apples, she thought happily. The apples, and she vomited one more time, for luck.

Liesel definitely seems to be enjoying the life of crime she has embarked on, and nothing can bring her back. As Death predicted, the gates of thievery have closed on her, but I really am surprised at where this chapter went. I had predicted Hans heading a series of adventures related to stealing books to further his mysterious plan, so I find myself wondering how exactly Liesel inspired this plan and how he will carry it out in the roughly three months to follow. (My, but this did move fast!)

So, I did enjoy these few chapters. It was all very well-written (as always) and it set up the story twists to come well. Now, I can only guess Liesel will make her way back to being “the book thief” in the three-hundred-and-eighty-four pages to come.


 

*I love Matt’s Book Vs. Movies comparisons, and I highly recommend his videos reviewing The Book Thief, as they are very insightful:

I know this post may seem unusual, since I never reviewed The Secret Garden on this blog. But I enjoyed the book so much, and I had so many thoughts about the 1949 film adaptation that I felt that I couldn’t resist writing about it here.

The Secret Garden is a book I was actually intrigued about for years, mostly because it was mentioned as the first book Matilda read in the classic Roald Dahl novel. (I have always had an ambition of someday reading her full list.) My aunt had had fond memories of her late grandmother reading it (and Little Women) to her and her sister back in the 50s when she was a girl.

I own a lot of books I want to get around to, however, so somehow it took me years to get myself persuaded to start reading it, but once I did, I was surprised at how engrossed I was in it. It was published in 1911, and for a book to still be read 103 years after its first publication, it usually has to be very special. The Secret Garden most certainly qualifies. The writing is beautiful, with passages that are so poetic in describing nature and life itself that they will never stop being relevant no matter how much time passes.

The message itself is timeless, and one that could change a person’s life. A lot of the book is based on sentimentality and a sense of childishness, but this is arguably appropriate since the characters ARE children and what saves it all and makes us get into the silly fairy tale is that it is based on a fundamental idea that many people can agree with: The way our lives are is based largely on the extremes under which we view it. If you live your life with a sense of optimism, of perpetual wonder for finding magic and happiness in the simplest things in life, this is just as powerful as the strongest medicine in the world for helping you live a long life well worth living for.

The characters are amazing. I felt like I got to know all of them well, and one of the pleasures of the book was just getting to be with them. I recommend the book to all, and if I had a Goodreads account (which I’ve been meaning to do one of these days), I would give it 5 stars. It is truly one of the classics in children’s literature, a great novel with which I can find next to no fault at all.

So naturally, it has received quite a few film adaptations. The first was in 1919, and is now lost. So we will be reviewing the 1949 adaptation! It has a very interesting trailer:

I wish trailers were done more like this now. Trailers of the period were basically infomercials where some individual (in this case A RANDOM LITERARY EDITOR!) would just sit around pitching the studio’s product to you.

Mr. Jordan-Smith’s idea that “Great books make great motion pictures” is certainly a clever one to pitch a film adaptation of one’s favorite books to mass audiences, but I don’t think I agree with it and that’s the root for a lot of the problems I have with the film. It is difficult for a film adaptation to get the same effect across that a great novel does, rather than coming across as a hollow retelling of events or worse, a cheap cash-in that misunderstands the book’s themes entirely. Only a few books (“To Kill a Mockingbird” being the primary example) translate very well to motion pictures, and I find it hilarious that all but 2 of Mr. Jordan-Smith’s so-called “Great Books/Pictures” are completely unfamiliar and forgotten to almost anyone 65 years down the line! And of the other 2, let’s face it: no one goes around praising the 1948 Three Musketeers as a great movie!

That said, let’s get to the film itself.

THE POSITIVES

  1.  The movie is filmed in black-and-white with Technicolor sequences in the garden. This is exactly the way the story should be done, and something I feel is a shame for modern cinema is that black-and-white cinematography has been relegated to a thing of the past and an unfortunate technical weakness. It may have literally been so, but people underrate the way it was used in film. The black-and-white imagery creates a superb atmosphere, from the bleak sense of cynicism we get in the aftermath of the typhus epidemic, to the vivid sequence of crossing the moors at night, and so on. It is actually harder to attain this tone so well in color, and the Technicolor scenes are what actually comes off as rather goofy and unevolved when we see how natural color is filmed in movies now. My generation tends to hate and dismiss black-and-white altogether, but to quote the late Gene Siskel (1946-1999), “There is inherent drama in it, there’s no question about it.”
  2. I don’t love Margaret O’Brien in this as much as a lot of people do, but she is pretty decent in the part. I have little complaints at all with Gladys Cooper. Mrs. Medlock didn’t have a big role in the book, and Cooper plays her basically the way she was presented there: stern and serious.
  3. Herbert Marshall is GREAT as Mr. Craven. It’s obvious watching him what a great actor he was, and he perfectly captures the sad, bitter character. As well as the script allows him, anyway. There is, of course, one major problem with his character, but that’s not Marshall’s fault and I’ll get to that…..
  4. The midnight scene with Colin and Mary is done very well. This is actually the scene Jordan-Smith opens to in the trailer, and it is a very important scene. It does come off as suspenseful. And it does intrigue one, listening carefully to every sentence, following the exchanges closely and marveling at the change in story direction just as in the novel.
  5. It mostly works because of one thing the film did very well at: Mary, Colin, and Dickon are childish, and their exchanges are silly and immature to the point it could be difficult to take the story seriously except that they are children. Furthermore, the scenes with the adults are interesting in their contrast, as the adults view the children’s events in such a bemused way, unable to understand. (In the novel, Ben was let into their world, but even he went along playfully with an ironic detachment.) The scenes between Mr. Craven and his son’s doctor illustrate this difference perfectly, through a marked change of tone that only makes the film stronger as a whole.
  6. Overall the film moves at a pretty good pace. Slow and easy, sure, but that’s the way it should be.
  7. Colin’s character growth starts out fairly well: we get an idea of why he is the way he is and what made him that way. The scene where Colin’s doctor makes his recommendation to Mr. Craven really illustrates the story’s central idea.

THE NEGATIVES

  1. Despite the fact that these are two film adaptations released more than half a century apart, the strategy used for condensing a book’s opening is very similar in both The Secret Garden (1949) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Both of those novels relied heavily on an exposition-dump through the omniscient narrator simply telling you a lot of backstory and information to set up the story to come. This doesn’t work as well in a movie unless you’re willing to use a narrator (and even then, the effect is different). So these film adaptations simply bypass the expository material altogether and start where the story really begins as proper. I love “The Riddle House” and I love “There Is No One Left”. They are great opening chapters, and films suffer due to not being able to employ prose (and thus limiting your range to a smaller variety of story-telling techniques). So just as we didn’t get a full outline of how Voldemort killed his father and grandparents back in 1944 (and Frank Bryce was reduced to just some random old man to be killed), so here we are not given the full story of Mary’s life in India. We know Mary grew up there the daughter of a couple of high social status, and we know she is a brat, but we don’t really get the full reason why. And this is the problem. The film plays up Mary being an unlikable brat, which she was, but that wasn’t the point. Since her parents and most of her servants are already dead, we don’t get to see the upbringing and the environment that made her this way. The environmental changes that drive Mary and Colin’s personalities and way of looking at the world to change so radically was the point. It was definitely an unfortunate sign of racism and the time the book was made, and is certainly a weakness of the original novel, but it did further the message of the story, which is still very strong in 2014.
  2. Consequently, one of the most upsetting changes for me is that Mary actually throws a fit and complains that no one will take care of her. The most interesting thing about Mary’s reaction to her parents’ death in the book was that she didn’t display an emotional reaction, and Burnett actually spoke through the narration to defend Mary for this: “…as [Mary] knew very little of [her mother] she could scarcely have been expected to love her or to miss her very much when she was gone.” Again, the emphasis is put on why Mary is the way she is. We are not meant to hate her, but to understand her, and the book does this much better: “If she had been older she would no doubt have been very anxious at being left alone in the world, but she was very young, and as she had always been taken care of, she supposed she always would be.
  3. One of the greatest problems of a film adaptation of this book is that the characters come across brilliantly in the novel, leaping off the pages, but reading that book and watching this movie has made me realize more than ever before that there is a distinct way of getting attached to characters in books, and watching them in movies somehow is less personal. Martha was largely a background character in the book. She served her purpose and she was fun enough to read about, but she wasn’t really a well-developed character, which is okay because she wasn’t that important to the point that she mostly disappeared in the last half of the book. But here she comes across mostly as a cardboard cut-out: all her traits are exaggerated, so we do not see her as a person and gain few insights into her heart and soul.
  4. What’s worse, Dickon doesn’t translate that well, either. Dickon was a magical character in the book, but that was mostly because he came across as a larger-than-life figure in the book, a strange unearthly specter. In the movie, it would take a great actor to create the same effect, and Brian Roper simply isn’t up to it. In fact, he’s much too old for the part. He was actually EIGHTEEN-NINETEEN WHILE FILMING! I am not kidding!
  5. In relation, while the use of Yorkshire language made the characters Dickon, Martha, Ben Weatherstaff, etc. very endearing in the book, and it added to Mary’s character growth by showing her use it as she got more fond of Dickon, this doesn’t really work nearly as well in the film because there’s no marked change: we’re just hearing a regional accent, as opposed to a lovable dialect printed in the pages of a book. If anything, it comes off more as annoying.
  6. I’m a bit split on Dean Stockwell as Colin. I initally mistook him for Dickon’s actor while watching the trailer, honestly. And I do like that he comes off as a vulnerable kid hiding behind an image of control over the house, he also seems too nice right from the beginning, and it’s hard to imagine anyone on the household staff actually being intimidated by him even as he is throwing fits. I’m also split on Reginald Owen as Ben (yes, we have two “Mary Poppins” alumni in him and Lanchester as Martha). He captures the gruff, but softhearted nature of the man, but Ben also doesn’t play as strong a part here, and we don’t get to know and like him as well as we did in the book, especially when we really should have.
  7. My favorite scene in the book is the one where Mary stands up to Colin. This worked so well for many reasons: somebody needed to talk to Colin like that, and Colin is stunned that somebody would. It serves to drive both their character changes, as Mary realizes perhaps subconsciously how horrible the way she has acted for most of her life really is. This is perhaps the final nail in securing Mary’s change, and it basically jump-starts Colin’s. However, in the film it doesn’t come off quite like this for many reasons. Mary ignores Colin’s tantrum for a long time, and Mrs. Medlock tries to prevent her from entering his room. In the book, it made her so furious she was having difficulty putting up with it until a servant DIRECTLY TOLD HER to “go and scold him,” at which she ran in eagerly without a second thought. This is more true to her nature, and shows that even the staff realized how bad the situation was and that even if they weren’t allowed to discipline him, someone else could. But the way it comes across here is simply trying to make the scene amusing by having one child end a tantrum by throwing another tantrum. Mary actually, in the film, knocks over things in the room to show that she’s more than telling him off, she’s throwing a tantrum herself. The scene deserves better than to be played at such a simple level.
  8. The scene where Colin first walks is amazing in the book. Here, I will admit a lot of the beauty and wonder of the garden is captured in this first moment, but Colin’s reaction is supremely dulled. In the book, he is so overcome with emotion that he screams with joy that he will be able to recover yet. This solidifes the themes of the book and overwhelms us with the emotion on display. In the film, he merely murmurs, “I shall live forever” in a dull, quiet manner. It is equally childish, but without the added passion and it is so muted one could have yawned and fallen asleep in the theater to it. This is hardly possible in the face of “I shall get well! I shall get well! Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever!”
  9. But by far, the worst, most unforgivable change is the addition of a phony “murder mystery” to the story. This is such a shocking deviation I found myself powerless to explain it at first. One reviewer on IMDb reasoned that “the desire to add additional menace to the Dark Old House theme probably proved irresistible – as well as giving the excellent British actor, Herbert Marshall, more dramatic gristle on which to chew“. All the same, there is no need to speculate that Colin’s father may be a murderer and it is so cheapening and unnecessary to the beautiful story which had endured for nearly 40 years at this point that I find it amazing no one stopped it in the creative process. The worst part is that so much time is spent on the resolution of this idea. The film seems to try at this point to show the children realizing how complicated the adult world really is, but that wasn’t the central point of the story and this only distracts from the point.
  10. Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where Ben finds the children in the garden. This is a very powerful scene because it shows Colin finally proving himself, as he is driven to show to himself and Ben, Mary, and Dickon that he can walk and that the doctors and Mr. Craven were entirely wrong in their attitudes regarding him. In the film, Colin does not walk until the end, which does make for a dramatic finish, but I don’t know. I personally felt it was very powerful when we saw Colin just run right into his father’s arms, and he was just forced to accept, already knowing there are children using his garden, that his son has learned to walk and has been experienced at it for quite some time. This was especially powerful since we were getting the scene basically through Mr. Craven’s perspective, which I’ll get to in a minute. This scene was also powerful because it showed Ben coming into his own, swearing his allegiance to Colin and actually breaking down in tears when he sees how bad Colin’s life was made by the solely negative worldview presented to him. Ben became a fully fledged character as the story focused on Colin training himself in the art of “magic”, which was an excellent metaphor for the power of positive thinking. The film really rushes through the story to get to the end at this point, and so we have:
  11. The finale. As has been stated in criticism, “The ending is the conceit”, so to speak, so: how does all this come together in the film’s closing? I found the ending of the book to be amazing. It, again, starts off with prose communicating ideas, beautiful ideas that you just can’t get across in film, not in the same way. So much of the film got its impact, as I said, from abandoning our trio entirely and putting us in the shoes of Mr. Craven, a figure only spoken of for most of the book and only seen once. He emerged as a fully-dimensional human being, in this last chapter, and we got to understand why he had abandoned the manor and let Colin believe he would die: because he sincerely believed it, and maybe he didn’t believe it for his wife, but after that heartbreak he simply couldn’t bear to develop an emotional attachment with his son. It’s a very unexpected turn for the book, but it really solidifies the book’s impact as we get a sense of actual “magic” coming into play in the form of the dream that summons Mr. Craven back to Misselthwaite. So we see even a sad cynic like Mr. Craven being overcome by the genuine magic that seems to be happening, and eventually just becoming happy, and it’s ridiculous, it’s “sentimental claptrap”, but you know what? It’s a great ending. Because I believed in it from everything the book had set up, I was more than prepared to accept it, it furthered the message perfectly, and it was consistent with the tone of the book. The film’s ending is actually more hokey in how suddenly it plays out, with Colin suddenly being able to walk. But hey, it gives us that final dose of happiness and culmination of the character changes to play us out, I’ll give it that.

I watched the film twice, and after the first viewing I was so disappointed and underwhelmed I could think of practically nothing for the “Positives”. It was only in the second viewing I found myself enjoying certain aspects and realizing why so many fans do like this version. It does at least get the tone of the book down well for the most part, but in the end I do not think it is a good adaptation, feel it is poorly written mainly, and don’t recommend it.

I will be watching the 1987 Hallmark adaptation next. I may decide to write about it here, but in any case I hope it will be an improvement.

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.”

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

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

Now let’s proceed with Part One!

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

featuring:

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

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

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

ARRIVAL ON HIMMEL STREET

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

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

***  A SPECTULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT ***

A train was moving quickly.

It was packed with humans.

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

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

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

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

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

And we then learn the characters’ names:

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

We also get this shocking bit of information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the shaking.

Why do they always shake them?

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

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

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

*** AN OBSERVATION ***

A pair of train guards.

A pair of grave diggers.

When it came down to it, one of them called the shots.

The other did what he was told.

The question is, what if the other is a lot more than one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s an interesting development!

*** A SMALL IMAGE, PERHAPS ***

TWENTY METERS AWAY

When the dragging was done, the mother and

the girl stood and breathed.

There was something black and rectangular

lodged in the snow.

Only the girl saw it.

She bent down and picked it up and

held it firmly in her fingers.

The book had silver writing on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was the chaos of goodbye.

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

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

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

The Hubermanns.

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

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

*** A PHOTO OF HIMMEL STREET ***

The buildings appear to be glued together, mostly small houses

and apartment blocks that look nervous.

There is murky snow spread out like carpet.

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

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

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

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

Quietly.

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

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

*** A TRANSLATION OF ***

ROSA HUBERMANN’S ANNOUNCEMENT

“What are you assholes looking at?”

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

*** THE GRAVE DIGGER’S HANDBOOK ***

A Twelve-Step Guide to

Grave-Digging Success

Published by the Bayern Cemetery Association

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

The last sentence startled me, however:

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

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

Well… this has me intrigued.

GROWING UP A SAUMENSCH

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

Yes, an illustrious career.

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

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

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

But Zusak/Death acknowledges:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And explanation of our title:

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

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

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

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

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

I love you already, Hans. Never change.

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

Her cooking was atrocious.

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

But then we get this that simply took me aback!

But she did love Liesel Meminger.

Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WOMAN WITH THE IRON FIST

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

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

But thankfully she has Hans to help her through it!

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

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

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

*** A DEFINITION NOT FOUND ***

IN THE DICTIONARY

Not leaving: an act of trust and love,

often deciphered by children

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

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

Hans, you are great. Great.

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

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

How do you tell if something’s alive?

You check for breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE KISS (A Childhood Decision Maker)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it gets particularly extreme here:

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

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

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

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

*** THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN ***

A BOY WHO HATES YOU

A boy who loves you.

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

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

“Of course not. Do you?”

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

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

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

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