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Old School Wednesdays Readalong: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.


The Book ThiefTitle: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Genre: Historical Fiction, World War II, Young Adult

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: First published 2006
Paperback: 552 pages

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook & Print Book


Ana’s Take: I managed to somehow miss reading The Book Thief all these years, despite the awards and the overwhelming praise it has received. I was cautiously happy when it was picked for this month’s readalong. And it started really well for me – I was charmed by the narrative voice and I was emotionally shaken in the beginning but during my reading of the book, something happened and I felt utterly disconnected from the story by the time I was finished with it. Am I heartless to admit I was wholly unaffected by the ending?

I’ve been thinking about it and the truth is: I felt utterly manipulated by the author into feeling a certain way about the story. I felt there was lot of hand-holding like the author couldn’t trust its audience to understand the severity of the events displayed. In the end, although I don’t regret reading it, I can’t really say I loved it.

Thea’s Take: This is an interesting OSW pick, because I actually read this book when it first came out in 2006, and I remember enjoying it very much, although I was never really compelled to pick it up for a reread. When The Book Thief was selected for this month’s readalong, I was excited (good timing, what with the movie adaptation and all), but also a little anxious. And you know what? Uupon rereading The Book Thief, I found so many stylistic choices that grated on my sensibilities, now, as a reader. I also felt distanced from the book, apathetic towards the characters and the overall story – perhaps because I knew where everything was going? Alas. This reread convinced me that The Book Thief does not quite stand the test of time (in my opinion, of course).

Discussion Questions:

1. The most distinctive thing about The Book Thief is the narrative. Not only the light, amusing style and voice which are at odds with the heavy topic but also WHO the narrator is. What do you think of these choices?

Ana: I am torn. I am torn because I am trapped between trying to understand the intention and working from what I actually got from the writing. I think the light, amusing style works? And it makes sense in a weird way: after all Death, the narrator, is trying to show its sense of humour, right? That its outlook in life is also extremely…cheesy and overly sentimental also kind of makes sense in its meta-commentary to discredit any sense of utter seriousness one would expect from Death.

But in a way that choice does perhaps backfire? It’s not that I feel that the narrative voice makes light of the serious topics presented in the story but I guess that in a way, it does allow for a sense of remoteness that end up making the characters and the events almost cardboard cut-outs of what one would expect from a story about World War II. I can’t but to feel that the gimmick of having an Amusing!Death! narrator took over to the detriment of anything else.

Death is also an omniscient narrator but an omniscient narrator with opinions and those opinions at times made me positively queasy. One such opinion seemed to run through the novel: the thought that some people managed to survive and remain alive because they “really wanted to live” or they have a strong “will”. As opposed to what exactly? 50 million people with a death wish??? Ugh x 1000.

It unsettled me considering this was a thought from not only death himself but other characters as well and it goes unchecked and unchallenged in the narrative.

Thea: This time around reading The Book Thief was a bizarre experience. The thing that bothered me the most about the book was the narrative style – not that I mind Death as the narrator, nor am I opposed to what Zusak tries to do with his lighthearted tone. The thing that bothered me the most was the incessant, heavy-handed foreshadowing. Death is omniscient and reporting on Liesel’s story after the fact, and so can make all kinds of little ominous hints that The Good Times Are Ending, or overly descriptive/attempts at poetic asides, all of which are fine in small doses but utterly annoying when repeated ad nauseam.

I also echo Ana’s discomfort with the notion that survivors are the ones that stubbornly cling on to life more than anyone else. No. Sometimes death happens, and often it has nothing to do with one’s strength of will or desire to survive. This attitude, especially given the Holocaust setting, is NOT ok.

2. The book is set during a specific time in the history of the world, i.e. World War II. What did you think of the author’s choice of depicting the story from the point of view of a largely German cast?

Ana: This is probably one aspect of the novel that I enjoyed the most. I am not sure if any historical research was done but I loved the snapshot of one small village and the different ways that people engaged with not only with the Nazi rule but with its ideas as well. From the ones who fully appreciated, internalised and believed in what was being said and done to the ones who had to conform out of fear and reprimand. I appreciated the story of good German people trapped in an impossible situation. Sometimes it is easier to colour all of Germany at the time as a terrible place full of horrible, evil people than to try and understand that the situation was much more complex than that.

Thea: I have absolutely no qualms with the German perspective! In fact, I applaud this character choice. To see the unfolding of WWII through the eyes of German citizens – especially a small, near impoverished town like Liesel’s – is a unique and memorable perspective. I love that Zusak does not pass judgement on the characters in the text, but shows them as ordinary people trying to live during an impossible, terrible, horrific time.

3. With regards to characters: who are your favourites and why? Expanding a bit on this question: what did you think of the female characters as portrayed in the book?

Ana: Do I have any choice but to say Hans, here? He was such an example of sheer Good that it is impossible not to like him but I can’t help but repeat: he was so good as to be a cardboard pattern for Good?

With regards to the female characters – we were asked on Twitter yesterday what we thought of the female characters and if the main character had any positive female friends. We thought that was a really good point and made me think that actually, the answer to this question is ….more or less. Undoubtedly the most important characters in the book – the ones written more in depth, the ones given a richer internal life are all men: Hans, Rudy and Max who are all portrayed as gentle and caring souls.

Then you have the female characters who, although important to Liesel, were not on the same level as the male ones. The foster mother was a shrew who only showed her love through spankings and screaming but had really a Hidden Heart of Gold. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

Thea: It’s an interesting thing to ponder. See, when I first read this book, I quite loved Liesel and Hans, and Rudy, and Max. I cared for these characters, I sympathized with them, I desperately rooted for them.

This time around…I felt like there was a disconnect. As I said in an email to Ana earlier, the characters all felt a little rough – in particular, the female characters. I still love Liesel, but I agree that the male characters are given a broader range of emotion and depth on the whole. The secondary female characters in this novel are reduced to tropish stand-ins – the nagging shrew, the steely shopkeeper, the hollow ghost of a wife. That’s frustrating.

4. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about?

Ana: To start with I like Death’s voice and was amused but this soon wore off. As you can probably tell by now, I was very disappointed – I expected a lot more. Sorry to be a downer, everybody!

Thea: I love the idea behind the story most of all – whether or not the book delivers on that promise is another animal. I like the structure of the novel, with its chapters within chapters, and I like heroine Liesel very much indeed. That said, the stylistic choices, the irritating foreshadowing, the lack of emotional resonance or depth… that bothered me. I’m also shocked at how much my reading of this book has changed over the course of 8 years!

5. Have you read any of Markus Zusak’s books before? Will you try any others if you are a newbie to his books?

Ana: To be completely honest? I was not really impressed with the book enough to want to read more. Unless you all think this is a huge mistake I am making?

Thea: This is the only Zusak book I’ve read. I’ll certainly give him a chance in the future – although I’ll be wary of the reread. I actually haven’t seen the film adaptation of The Book Thief yet – anyone here have thoughts? I will give it a rental to see how the characters come off on screen.


Ana: 4? 5? 4

Thea: Initially a 7, but now a 5


Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

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  • Beth
    January 29, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve always thought Death sounded like a pale imitation of Bartimaeus, but that may be because I read the Jonathan Stroud series first. Either way, I was never a fan of this book the way so many, many people are. I never connected to it emotionally (despite the author’s heavy-handed insistence that I do so) and I found the narration melodramatic and overwrought.

    I also found it interesting that this book is touted as a Holocaust novel, because to my mind, it isn’t one at all.

  • Amanda
    January 30, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Your reviews were a relief to read! I didn’t enjoy the book but felt I should have, given the gushing of a few bookish friends. I thought maybe I was too impatient of a reader and had somehow made a huge mistake, but I still haven’t been able to bring myself to re-read it. I didn’t see the movie either, and based on mixed reviews (many pointing to a too-shiny, feel-good tone), don’t plan to.

    I did just watch Lore, and holy cow was it powerful. It did a number on my emotions (they were conflicted but in the best possible way) and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after. The movie is streaming on Netflix right now. Here’s the review/info on Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lore/

  • Katie
    January 30, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    I also wasn’t very impressed with this book and was confused by the amount of hype and praise it received.

  • The English Student
    January 30, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    I actually thought all the characters in The Book Thief felt immensely, tragically real – although the point about the female characters is something that I hadn’t thought about, and I can see how it might be true. I’m glad the Readalong gave me an excuse to re-read it – thank you!
    (My review is here, if anyone is interested!)

  • Victoria Van Vlear
    January 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    These reviews (and comments) are encouraging. I only got about ten pages in when I put the book down about a year ago. I actually got it back out last week to try again, and it’s good to know that others were not over the moon about it, either.

  • Ms. M
    January 30, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    I loved the book when I read it, and I think I still do. That said, don’t see the movie. It cannot capture the depth (that perhaps I imagined?) of the book, and it probably shouldn’t have tried.

  • Dennis
    January 30, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    I’ll go against the grain and admit I enjoyed the book immensely. I did find the choice of narrator a bit disconcerting initially, but grew to enjoy the first person omniscient/foreshadowing narration popping in and out. And we’re all pretty omniscient about the outcome of World War II so the foreshadowing was a bit of a rope to cling to in a dire story. As is the possibility of an afterlife.

    Also (and probably because I’m a male) I loved Hans and his relationship with Liesel. Someone who can take a strange child into their home and display infinite patience — and teach them to read!– is my definition of a hero for the ages. Too good to be true, of course, but a nice counter-balance to Rosa (and a nice gender-switching of roles that’s at variance with how I usually view the Germans of that era). [Male author– yeah, I can see that].

    Lastly, I think I appreciated the book because I see so many parallels with my own country and my own times. The need to conform in that time was so very necessary and the cost of non-conformity was so staggering that it was inspiring to read of people who would make any modest resistance– let alone harboring a Jew.

    All in all, it was a pretty absorbing read for me. Not something I feel the need to return to, but worth the effort for me.

  • Kate & Zena
    January 31, 2014 at 1:37 am

    I actually liked the book too. I have the edition where it has an interview with the author in the back, so to answer your question @Ana, Zusack went to Germany and did an immense amount of research on the Holocaust and Germany during the time of WWII. He did it because his parents grew up in Europe during that time and he wanted to know more.

    (You can read about this here: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/resources/MZ-TheBookThief.pdf )

    What bothered me most about the book was the sheer amount of German in the book. It would jar the flow of the book and since I don’t know German, I would run down to my parents (who both know German since they took it in college and remembered most of it because we LIVED in West Germany for four years) to ask, “WHAT DOES THIS WORD MEAN, MOM?!” about fifty times a day. It got to the point where my mom would say, “Write down the word and at the end of the day bring it down and I’ll tell you what it means.”

    Yep, I annoyed her that much.

    I think that was the part that annoyed me most. The relationships touched me most as it, in a way, was a bit like my own family. Very odd and quirky and we’ve taken in people like Hans (we’ve helped save military wives from abusive situations, so I truly get Leisel’s father.)

  • Ana
    January 31, 2014 at 5:01 am

    Thanks for the comments everybody – it’s interesting to see the wide range of reactions.

    @Kate & Zena – wow, that’s incredible! Thanks for sharing.

  • Katharine
    February 1, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    After reading your review, I went back and looked at what I wrote when I read the book a year ago – I agreed with you on several points and still feel the book has a pall over it. Here’s my Goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/562728213

  • Arati
    February 3, 2014 at 5:16 am

    Interesting take on the book – it’s on my list of books to read before the movie comes out – perhaps I might read it after the movie, given this review!

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