Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I don't ordinarily look at reviews until after I've read a book or watched a movie. Obviously that's difficult with a popular book or movie because the reviews are ubiquitous and because I like to read reviews. On the other hand, when a friend recommends a book that sounds interesting, I don't check the reviews so I can come to it with relatively fresh eyes.

That's the case with The Book Thief by Australian author Marcus Zusak. It was published in September 2007, and it a YA best-seller. Zusak has said that he grew up hearing stories about Germany during WWII, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother's small, German town. "We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the 'Heil Hitlers' and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn't follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there's another side to Germany," said Zusak in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Book Thief dramatizes that other side by telling the story of a young girl living in a small German town during the years 1939-44. It might have been a mirror image of Diary of a Young Girl—the Aryan girl who also suffers under Nazism—except that Zusak does an interesting thing: He has Death tell the story. Because Death is everywhere, Death sees things and knows things no one of the characters can know. The result, I found, is an interesting, and convincing, picture of small town German life from the perspective of the children at that time.

The book is popular. When I checked a minute ago, it had 1,174 five-star reviews on And with a book that's so many people are willing to take the time to rate and review, I am always curious about those who didn't care for it, the 37 people who gave it one-star reviews. What is their problem? Many of them found it slow-paced and boring. Some didn't like the writing, i.e., "...the premise of this seemed so original and fun, but I was sorely disappointed. I couldn't get past the first 30 pages. The voice of the narrator was so irritating I wanted to scream..." "... I found [the language]  to be empty, fruity, and ultra-pretentious..." "...this book was so confusing, and hard to understand..."

Few of the critics feel the problem with the book is in themselves. "The book is boring" not "I thought (or felt or found) the book to be boring." Many of them are mystified that other people enjoyed the book and are angry that they got sucked into trying it or, worse, buying it. Almost no one who hated the book goes into any detail why. On the other hand, these are Amazon reviews and one can hardly expect the reviewers to spent more than a moment warning off potential readers. Nonetheless, it does not help the author or the potential reader to write with no examples or detail why a book succeeds for you or fails for you.

By the way, I read The Book Thief through. It convinced me that this is what it might have been like to be a pre-teen at that time in that place. Which, for me, is a lot.

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