The Book Thief and the power of words

The Book ThiefWhen you start a book and the narrator is the voice of Death, you know you won’t be reading a happy book.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak definitely wasn’t the happiest of tales – it takes place in a small German town during the heart of the Second World War after all. Through Death’s eyes, we’re introduced to Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is seeing her young brother die as she rides on a train with him and her mother. At the next stop they find a grave yard to bury him, and this is where Liesel finds her first book,The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

We find out that Liesel and her brother were being sent to foster parents as her mother escaped persecution for her and her husband’s alleged Communist leanings. Liesel, alone, is raised by Rosa and Hans Hubermann who appear to be the most opposite of people. Rosa is crass, loud and always calling everyone a Saukerl or “Pig” and Hans is a gentle painter who plays the accordion and has a personality that draws Liesel in and helps her open up to her new surroundings.

Throughout the rest of the story, Death, though admittedly busy during those years, takes a keen interest in Liesel’s life as she attends school and grows into her teen years, stealing more books along the way and learning to read them through the help of her foster father.

What I found interesting about much of the book was that Zusak focuses on the lives of the characters as war is happening around them, but since it’s through the lens of a young girl (as relayed by Death), it doesn’t go into too much detail about explaining the politics of the time. We find out that Hans doesn’t support the Nazi party, but still hangs a flag whenever a parade passes through; Liesel and her friend Rudy Steiner are forced to steal food because of rationing throughout the country; And, Rosa’s laundry businesses that she runs from home begins to suffer as the wealthier neihbours become unable to afford her services.

It’s not until Hans answers a promise made long ago by taking in a Jewish man by the name of Max Vandenburg that the story becomes truly serious. Max is extremely malnourished when he arrives, but soon he establishes a close bond with Liesel. The two have frequent nightmares about losing loved ones and also enjoy storytelling. Their bond grows as Max shares his stories with her.

One of the stories spoke of how Hitler rose to power, not with his fists or guns, but with words. Zusak often brings up the power of words and what they can do to people, both good and bad. When bomb raids began approaching their town, they congregated in a local basement and Liesel began reading to everyone there. The words calmed everyone and made them briefly forget that at any moment, they could die.

We have to remind ourselves that words matter. They can persuade you to do anything from buying a product to persecuting an entire race of people. The Book Thief does an excellent job of getting this point across and as a communicator for a living, I can appreciate his message. If you’re a lover of words, then I recommend reading this one. I give The Book Thief a 4/5.

My review of Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel‘s Beatrice & Virgil fits itself in to (unlucky?) book number 13 in my “26 in 52 challenge“. Similar to Paulo Coelho, Yann Martel is an author whose first book drew me in and has had me coming back for more, even though each time I’m disappointed it was not as good as the first.

This is the third non-fiction book by Martel that I’ve read (the other two being Self and the amazing Life of Pi). It has a clever premise with two parallel stories. The first features an author who meets a taxidermist through a fan mail letter that got the best of his curiosity. The author finds out that the taxidermist requires his help writing a story, and throughout the novel the story unfolds as the taxidermist reads parts out loud. The other parallel features the story of Beatrice & Virgil, a donkey and howler monkey, respectively.

Beatrice & Virgil are by far the more enjoyable part of the novel. The dialogue between the two is quite visual and as a reader I feel like I’m with them as they go through their adventures, good and bad. Eventually it’s obvious to the author and the reader that the adventures of Beatrice & Virgil are a parallel to that of the persecution the Jews saw during the Holocaust. It’s done in a more innocent manner, almost like a children’s novel so for me it wasn’t very emotional, as it would be if it were a story of people going through the same ordeals.

Eventually the author, who has gone through major changes in his personal life, comes to the realization that the taxidermist is not very liked by his peers and is generally not a good person at all. This can be seen from the start of the novel, but it’s explained away as him being a old, lonely man with no family.

While the story itself was good, I didn’t feel much of an emotional connection to the novel. The use of animals was reminiscent of Martel’s Life of Pi, but failed to capture it’s vivid and emotional feel. I want to like Martel’s books, because he’s a fantastic writer, but I’m having trouble doing so. I give Beatrice & Virgil a 3/5.

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