Reading Log: Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Okay, so this wasn’t recommended to me by an English professor. But practically everyone else that I know has told me that I need to read this book. thebookthiefAnd right after that they all told me the same thing:

“Oh my gosh, it’s so sad.”

Look, I did my time. I grew up being Jewish and loving books which meant I went through the mandatory years of everyone I know recommending Holocaust books to me all the time. “Oh my gosh, you’re Jewish!” My classmates would say. “You should read Number the Stars!” One year, me and my sisters got a biography of Anne Frank for Channukah.

So I didn’t really want to revisit the YA Holocaust genre. But multiple people I know cite The Book Thief as their favorite book, so when I picked up a sweater I’d left at my friends’ house and found a copy underneath, I asked to borrow it.

“Sure, but it’s Leah’s. I borrowed it.” Coming from Becca, whose house I was at.

I told Leah I had her book. “Nah, that’s Becca’s. It’s a good book though.”

I guess it’s mine now.

The Book Thief is a terrific story, powerfully if inelegantly written. In case you live under a rock, it’s about a poor German girl whose family hides a Jewish man during World War II, and it’s told from the perspective of Death personified.

Maybe this is a side effect of peer editing four short stories a week for my fiction workshop, but I repeatedly found myself getting stuck in sentences like this one, which describes a man who stops whistling to yell at a child on the street: “It was then that any impression of serenity was violently interrupted, for his voice was brimming with rage”(53). For me, it felt that the story took a long time to build up speed, and almost 200 pages pass with childhood adventures and heavy foreboding before the main conflict starts, wen the protagonist’s family begins sheltering a Jewish man in their basement. Still, the narration is idiosyncratic enough to be satisfying and the childhood misadventures are charming. Zusak’s character descriptions shine: a central character is defined almost exclusively as

  1. being shaped like a wardrobe
  2. swearing a lot

and I loved it. She is vivid and neat and shows up tangibly on the page.

Right now I’m feeling sort of stressed and stuck with my own writing. I’m reading so many of the short story greats right now–Barthelme, Saunders, Carver, Babel–and I feel them all mixing up in my head as these gorgeous untouchable paragons and it’s terrifying. In my workshop, it seems like I’m at a level of textual specificity (word choice, phrasing, descriptions) that’s beyond the average level of the class–definitely not to say that there aren’t better writers than me in there, but many of the stories I read for classmates had a lot of overwriting or obviousness or awkwardness in style. But I feel myself falling short on the story level. Obviously comparing myself to giants isn’t going to help my self  esteem, but I get criticism on my stories and I hear and agree with it but I don’t know how to punch things up to the next level, to improve my work, and keep it mine, keep what makes it good.

The Book Thief is a novel that bothered the would-be editor in me. There were phrases and sentences in here that stopped me up, like “their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen”(104), that made me want to get out a pencil and write in margin notes.

And The Book Thief is a novel that made me cry. Part of that was because of me, and not Zusak, but I wouldn’t have cried reading a phone book or a Barthelme short story and I cried, on my couch, finishing The Book Thief. And so if I’m learning from what I’m reading, what I learned then is that something can be imperfect, or bother me aesthetically, can have break rules of cliche-avoiding and succinctness, and still be great. And I think that’s something I needed to learn.



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