With the film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief on its way in November, we’re reading the book together this month. We’re reading it for the first time, and we invite you to join us for the readalong! Re-readers are also welcome, as long as you’re patient with our never-ending questions.
This week we’re reading to page 123, or Part 3.
Somewhat surprisingly, K, Kate, and I all have somewhat conflicting feelings about the book so far.
How about you? Let us know in the comments below, we’ll be around to respond to your reactions later in the day as well.
The Book Thief Readalong: Week One
Pages 1 – 123 (Part 3)
Wendy: All right, so far this is intriguing, but I have to say that I think I picked a stopping point that came too soon. At page 123 the story still seems to be setting up, so right now I think we’re discussing more general reactions than anything else.
Kate: I am going into this with a prejudice against Nazi-themed literature because it makes me pass-y out-y.
Wendy: Definitely something you have to be in the right mood for, or in this case, motivation to read! We’ve all been meaning to read this for a long time.
Kate: I find myself distracted by comparisons to Terry Pratchett’s Death. That character has been a big part of my life for such a long time (I know that sounds cheesy, but I’ve read around 40 books with this character in them–most of them more than once–including one of my all-time favorite novels, Good Omens) that it’s hard for me to accept a different version of him. I know the genres are completely different, but the Deaths are similar enough that it bothers me. It’s like watching a remake of my favorite childhood movie. I can’t get a handle on Death’s omniscience, and he reminds me of the narrator from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Wendy: I like some of the things we see from Death’s perspective, particularly when he’s coming to get someone for the eternal sleep. The omniscient POV is tricky for me, though–it’s sort of fairy tale-ish and I don’t love that for subjects like these. (Side note: I liked, but didn’t love Curious Incident.)
Kate: I agree. It worked for me in Pan’s Labyrinth (so many of my friends hate that movie, btw), but here I feel a little bit manipulated. I guess I prefer Holocaust stories like Maus, where the narrator’s more frank. Truly horrific events like these don’t need all that sauce on them.
K: Agree as well. I don’t know how I feel about the end of the prologue, in particular, with the “come with me and I’ll tell you a story”. It has such a romanticized tone to it for such an intensely tragic topic.
Wendy: Exactly. Combining that with the random facts, passive voice, and a great deal of telling us how someone feels instead of showing us, I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the writing style so far as whole, although there are some nice moments here and there. I prefer to interpret/feel things myself, rather than being told what to think. (Case in point: the significance to Liesel of The Grave-Digger’s Handbook spelled out at 5%.) Still, it’s early though and the story shows promise.
Kate: Calling out the title within the work makes me groan. There was a book I read recently where the name of the book was said like 25 times. It made me cringe hardcore.
Wendy: Referencing the title in the story is a big pet peeve of mine, too. There’s also a lot going on stylistically, between the colors, the descriptive writing, and shifts in timeline.
Kate: The timeline shifts are really screwing with me. Going from the Jesse Owens story to the bed wetting confused me. And maybe that’s the point–maybe our narrator sees things in a confusing, out-of-order way–but if this is the case, then I think the author should have leaned into it a bit more. It almost reads like (and this is going to sound so snobby) this is the draft before the final one. Does that make sense?
K: I don’t think I have too a big a problem with that — it’s just flashbacks and as long as I concentrate on the chronology, it seems fine. Also, Rudy covering himself in charcoal as a form of blackface is hilarious. And super cute.
Kate: I liked that, too (but the I was immediately confused by the timeline shift–I think maybe because there is nothing to show that we are moving back forward in time, and sometimes by the end of a flashback I have forgotten that it took place in the past.) The old man teaching the little girl how to roll cigarettes is an awesome scene.
Wendy: I also like the poetic description of the streets lined with doors with yellow stars on them, although of course it’s an ominous sign. (8%)
K: I loved them reading in the basement and writing words on the walls.
Kate: Yes. Also, I was a bedwetter into my teens (I know), and I thought the bedwetting stuff was incredibly sweet, but also…like, that mattress is ruined now. It will continue to smell for a long time to come.
K: Haha, I know. Change the sheets but not the mattress — where the stuff really absorbed into.
Wendy: So far there’s been a lot of set-up, and I’m curious to see where these anecdotes will tie into the plot later.
Kate: I like the description of Rudy as (8%) “He was not the junior misogynist type of boy at all,” and later “THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN A BOY WHO HATES YOU A boy who loves you.” And “She was a girl with a mountain to climb” is a lovely way to describe her struggle to learn to read. (15%)
“Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children” is lovely.
K: That was lovely. Not using a formal and correct term, instead using a phrase that a child’s mind would use or say is very endearing.
Kate: I’m concerned about my ability to keep these German names straight when they DO tie back in. I have such trouble with foreign names. And I’m half German.
Wendy: Same here. Not one of my strong points.
Kate: The device for defining German words and revealing expository information is great. I so prefer a book’s just bluntly telling me what things mean to trying to work it in in a way that is subtle in these types of circumstances. (I also really like when things just are not explained, and you have to look it all up yourself if you’re confused)
Wendy: I like that Liesel is described as having dangerous eyes. (4%) Also, “a lemon-haired boy” (13%)
Kate: I like the imagery (7%) of the stars rising and floating on the surface of the sky like water, and “…the stars were dragged down again, into the waters of the German sky.” It makes everything feel upside down.
Wendy: YES. And the burning of books and paper is sobering. I especially like the way he describes “blurry heat,” birds circling overhead, and “You didn’t see people. Only uniforms and signs.” (20%) Those scenes reminded me quite a bit of Fahrenheit 451.
Kate: Me, too.
Wendy: Here are things that confuse me: I don’t know whether I missed it, but I’m not sure why Liesel doesn’t know how to read? And why exactly she needs foster parents? There was mention of her mother being sick without money, but then again, the foster parents receive a stipend, no?
K: Well, near the end of Part Two, it did mention that her mother was most likely taken and interrogated either for being a communist or having connections…maybe they were just trying to get rid of the child? Sorry, if that’s totally off and I missed something.
Wendy: Yes, you’re right, we were told that. I just want to be told more explicitly what is happening, hah. But it is a somewhat effective if you look on it as a child probably wouldn’t know the specifics of everything that is going. But what about the reading thing?
Kate: I’m just generally confused by everything surrounding Liesel’s past. Maybe I’ll research what was actually going on foster parent-wise in Germany around then and report back in the comments. It’s really confusing to me that the mom rode with them on the train.
I think we don’t know anything from before Death first meets Liesel. It’s weird, though, because, again, we’re being told what’s going on in her head. In a limited way? And I guess her dad didn’t die anywhere near her.
Wendy: Yes, maybe that’s it. And I guess not–no mention of him at all, from what I recall.
Kate: I’m also a little confused because Death says he only saw the book thief three times, but it doesn’t sound like she died that third time. Maybe I mis-read.
Wendy: No, I remember him saying that, too. Maybe she’s the sole survivor.
Kate: But he still would see her another time, then, right? On the day of her death? Am I too stupid for this book? I also am constantly reminded of The Sound of Music. The stuff with the Hubermanns’ son felt a bit like what happened with Liesl’s boyfriend (Rolfe?).
Wendy: Oh, I didn’t think of that, but yeah–I see the similarity. I was surprised at Hans Hubermann’s reaction to Liesel’s saying that she hates the Fuhrer. It was unexpected.
Kate: I expected it because (15%) we were warned that there would be “a slap from a trusted hand” after the blood-soaked ankle. This is a problem I have with this style of narration–it just really is not compatible with how my brain takes in information.
K: I was actually very moved by Han’s reaction to Liesel’s remark. I think you kind of have to read between the lines but as soon as I read that, I saw the deep feeling this strange, foster father has developed for her. I think in that moment, he became terrified of what would happen if there had been someone else to hear — because obviously that is a very dangerous mentality to have. All for the Fuhrer!
Kate: I understood his reaction and why he did what he did, and I think it was actually a loving way for him to behave, but having been told it was coming really lessened the effect it had on me.
I adore Rudy. He is absolutely, 100% going to die, because this is the kind of book that makes you love people and then kills people. I will eat a ham sandwich with mayonnaise on it if I’m wrong.
K: I’m already trying not to be too fond of him. It isn’t exactly working.
Wendy: I wouldn’t take those odds. I’m sure pretty much everyone we meet is going to die. Except maybe the wicked foster mother, hah.
K: Ah, yes, but not so wicked. I love the weirdness of Rosa. She’s horrendous and absolutely abusive yet she has moments when she’ll yell all the way down the street, calling out Leisel’s name and asking if she’s dressed warm enough for later when it gets dark. And maybe I’m wrong, or I’m just romanticizing the relationship between Hans and Rosa, but maybe below all that hostility is underlying affection…? maybe?
Kate: K, you are being so sweet to Rosa, and she absolutely has not earned it. I love it. But she and her lovely husband were married initially for a reason. I wonder what has happened to her to make her the way she is–presumably she was once fiery and hilarious but still kind.
Oh yeah, her village ends up in rubble, doesn’t it? And the soldiers throw her book on a wagon or something.
On a side note, my mom used to hit us with a wooden spoon when I was growing up, and I have a really hard time, now, when this happens in books. It triggers me a bit. Interestingly, I recently learned that a friend of mine doesn’t cook with wooden spoons for the same reason–he can’t bear to look at them.
Wendy: Yikes. I can see how that would be a huge trigger.
K: All the side notes by Death is kind of distracting. He’s involving us in the story but then taking us aside by handing us these tid bits of information. It’s jarring, especially when you’re trying to emotionally engage with the characters. Kind of annoying.
Wendy: Agreed. It’s like when you watch a film and there’s a prologue narrated by one of the characters looking back on events that have passed, except in this case it’s the whole freaking thing! This style is very old school–I feel like there are a lot of classics that have an omniscient narrator, and it’s very hard to execute in a way that doesn’t feel somewhat stilted.
Kate: I agree, too. I would have liked this book WAY more when I was a teenager, I think.
K: But there is some seriously, beautifully haunting descriptions in this book. Example:
Liesel was sure her mother carried the memory of him, slung over her shoulder. She dropped him. She saw his feet and his legs and body slap the platform.
How could that woman walk?
How could she move?
That’s the sort of thing I’ll never know, or comprehend — what humans are capable of. (p.25)
Kate: The weird thing for me, K, is that the descriptions feel like they’re SUPPOSED to be haunting, but I don’t actually feel haunted. Does that makes sense? And I know I must be wrong because everyone in the world loves this book, but it kind of leaves me cold.
Wendy: Yeah, I’m in that camp, too. I’m curious about what is happening, but I don’t feel Liesl’s pain or confusion at all, and I desperately want to.
K: No, I understand what you’re saying. I haven’t exactly warmed to this book yet, either. It’s Death, really, that gets in the way. I’m not a fan of his voice (Ooo, who says he’s a he?). Also, what with the prologue, it kind of sets us up for this “special” story — only “one of a handful” as Death tells us — so we’re made to feel like we’re supposed to feel and understand everything that goes on. But then we find out Death sucks at storytelling. Oops.
Wendy: Hah hah hah. Death better step it up in the next part.
Kate: Oh shit. You know what this reminds me of (the “Death may be female” thing)? When I read a book that makes zero reference to most of the characters’ skin colors, and then I complain about lack of diversity in it. When the blame is on my dumb brain.
Wendy: I find it interesting when authors spend a huge amount of time describing physical appearances, because they rarely register with me when I’m reading either. More often than not, spending a great deal of time describing the color of someone’s hair or skin or whatever is a substitute for great character building. But I digress….
My favorite quote so far:
Smoke was rising out of Liesel’s collar…
Beneath her shirt, a book was eating her up.
To sum up: I think all three of us are in agreement at this point that we are interested in Liesel’s story, but some of the stylistic choices aren’t working well for us, although we do like some of the imagery and find some of the characters compelling.
What Do You Think?
All right, what are your thoughts on the first 3 parts of this book? Do you agree/disagree with our reactions so far? What do you think will happen next? Discuss with us in the comments below!
Reminder: Next week, on Friday, October 11, we will be regrouping to discuss to page 303. It’s the longest reading stretch for this month, so I hope you’re up for it!