Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is my first book in our Numbers Challenge. This book was released to marked fanfare in 2005. I remember seeing it in the bookstores at the time and being infinitely disappointed that a book called The Book Thief was a “kid book,” and therefore off limits. At the time, the only kid books I had read since I was a kid were the Harry Potter books. Remember, this was nine years ago. Adults had not embraced young adult fiction to the degree they do today. This book was released the same year as Twilight, though, which is probably the series that really brought young adult fiction to the forefront of popular culture. Harry Potter did it first, and far better, but we have those damn sparkling vampires to thank for really making YA fiction into something for readers of all ages. I bought this book at The Great Overland Book Company on Judah Street in San Francisco, with Bethany, on our first book-buying expedition of the 21st century. Pre-blog and everything. Bethany was home for a visit at the holidays and we managed to get together. It was such a lovely day. Books and food and conversation. I saw a used copy of this book, and I asked Bethany if it was worth buying. I’d had my eye on it for a while, but wasn’t sure if it was worth the time. Bethany said it was, so I bought it. I never doubt my co-blogger’s opinion when it comes to books. To me, it’s somehow appropriate that this book, purchased on mine and Bethany’s first outing in years and years, is the first one I’m reading for our new blog reading challenge. I’m sort of sentimental that way.
As of right this second I’m about a quarter of the way through this book. It’s going fast, which is great. The plot is so far much less convoluted than that of The Luminaries, which is also a nice change of pace. A fun fact is that Death narrates The Book Thief, which makes me concerned for the main characters. But it’s also a fascinating device—Death is fascinated with Liesel, the titular book thief. He runs into her a bunch while others around her are dying, apparently. When the book opens, it is 1939, Liesel is almost ten years old, and is on a train to Munich with her mother and brother to go into foster care. Her brother dies on the train (and this is the first time Death sees Liesel). Her brother is buried in the town they’re passing through. One of the gravediggers drops a book, and Liesel is drawn to pick it up. It’s called The Gravedigger’s Handbook, though Liesel doesn’t know that at the time as she can barely read. The reasons for the foster care are not elucidated this early on, besides that her mother is unable to care for Liesel and her brother any longer. Liesel ends up in a suburb of Munich living with Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Hans is a gentle soul who plays the accordion and is a house painter. Rosa is the personification of the stereotypical German hausfrau—she yells. She curses. She throws things. Her nickname for Liesel is saumensch, which roughly translated means “pig-girl,” but someone on goodreads.com said it’s akin to calling someone a bitch. I suspect Rosa exists to provide comic relief and to make the kids reading this book grateful for their own mothers. Hans teaches Liesel to read. And that’s basically all that’s happened so far, though I expect to make more reading progress before I publish this post.
Something surprised me when I started reading this book. The author likes to insert boldface type into the text, centered, and possibly nonsensical, for the purposes of emphasis. Here is one example (and I apologize that it’s double spaced. Word Press’s formatting is weird):
***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 (63).
Stuff like this in books used to thrill me. Now it seems more like a distraction, and one that could have been done better. Like with a better font or something. It’s possible that The Book Thief was a pioneer of adding asides like this into the text of a book, but I’m not sure when authors started doing this stuff. Now it’s for sure overdone, and I long to have a book that’s simply words on a page with paragraphs and well-structured sentences. Like The Luminaries. But wasn’t I just complaining about how that book is too classical in its format? Ugh. There is no pleasing me. Too modern! Too old fashioned! Too much dialogue! Too little plot! Not enough characterization! But I digress.
I’ve always had this morbid fascination with the Holocaust. I wrote a term paper on the concentration camps for my world history class in high school. I loved The Diary of Anne Frank when I was in sixth grade. My favorite Indiana Jones movie is Last Crusade, due in no small part to Indy’s efforts to subvert Hitler. Hitler is, in my mind, history’s biggest bad guy, and everything he did to the Jews has always struck me as unbelievably awful. As in, it is incomprehensible to me that a person could think that genocide is a good idea and be charismatic enough to convince a whole nation to go along with it. It’s so ridiculous that it seems like it could only belong in a science fiction novel. So an opportunity to read a book that takes place during this era in history is a bonus to this Numbers Challenge selection for me.