Tag Archives: Young Adult

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

 

via Random House

Sometimes a book, let’s say a seemingly innocent young adult novel, comes along and sucks you in. It enchants you with real, faulted characters and beautiful descriptions. It chews you up, peppering the story with loss and grief, and soothes your wounds with stories of friendship, acceptance and love. Ultimately it spits you out, tears sliding down your cheeks, and you realize that the standard to which you hold literary fiction has been irrevocably raised.

The Book Thief’s back cover sets it up as the story of a young girl who steals books in Nazi Germany. The danger comes when her foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement. The simplicity of the blurb is deceptive, and you realize this right off the bat when the story is introduced and told by none other than Death himself.

 

As is only appropriate when the narrator is Death, the style of storytelling is a bit unorthodox. Surprises in the plot are leaked before they actually happen, but I was surprised to find that those leaks, while shocking, just drove me on in my reading, rather than spoiling the story. Things within the text are described in a way that is wholly unfamiliar. Zusak had a tendency to turn words into objects; “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet…” Death gave life to things as ordinary as the sky; “The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.”

All of these things added to the beauty and complexity of the story, and I haven’t even told you about the plot yet. The story of Liesel Meminger begins on a train. Death has just taken her younger brother en route to their new foster parents. In the first 30 pages of the book, Liesel loses her mother and brother, is thrust into the arms of a strange new family (the Hubermanns), and steals her first book, though she can’t yet read.

As the story progresses, tentative bonds are formed and strengthened, friends are found, and Liesel begins to grow more confident in her new life. The story is full of darkness but its redemption lies in the strength of its characters. Liesel and her friend Rudy could have been kids in my neighborhood growing up. They resonate a believable familiarity that keeps the book relatable in the  midst of incredible events.

A Jew, Max Vandenburg, shows up at Liesel’s house in the middle of the night. The reason, we learn, has everything to do with Hans Hubermann’s stint in WWI, his friendship with a Jewish soldier, and a promise made to that soldier’s widow upon Hans’ return to Germany. Max is the son of that Jewish soldier, and he is now in need of the help promised to his mother so many years ago, and so the Hubermans take him in, hide him in the basement, and Liesel’s education begins in ernest.

Liesel learns more important lessons in the basement of her foster parents’ house than she does at school. It is where she learns to write, it is where she begins to identify with a Jew while his brethren are being marched through town on their way to Dachau, and it is where words ultimately save her life.

Bottom line: In spite of The Book Thief‘s technical categorization of Young Adult, I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a book full of beauty and struggle. I will warn you: I read the end of the book through a blur of tears, but it was definitely worth it.

Listen to Markus Zusak talking about the book here:

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Rotters, by Daniel Kraus (2011)

RottersRotters by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really have to give some hard thought to my review of this book… I have very mixed feelings about it.

Take one part touching story about a boy (Joey) losing his mother and going to live with the father he never knew existed. Add one part teenage angst about starting over in a new school and from day one, being the target of the violent meat-head school bully and his cronies. Add the embarrassment of having the town pariah as his father and showing up at school smelling like garbage every day. Mix in a crush on meat-head’s girlfriend, for added measure, and a vindictive teacher bent on torturing Joey all year long.

Now, sprinkle into your promising mix the following:

Joey’s suspicion of his father’s life of thievery, which takes a turn for the macabre when he follows the old man one night. Watching his father clip a finger off of a disembodied hand to pocket the gold ring, Joey discovers just what kind of thievery his father is best at.

Joey’s first night out under his philosophical, professor-like father’s wing. You get to go along for the graphic, darkly educational ride as Joey takes part in his first dig and sees his first “Rotter.”

The eventual revenge Joey takes on the three high school forces that ruin any chance for normalcy between the hours of 8-3. I’m at a loss for words trying to sum up the method of revenge Joey takes. Creative, for sure, but also dark, gruesome, disgusting and twisted. So very twisted. My feelings of “they got what was coming to them” were tainted by my slight revulsion of the method.

A dark, sad cast of other Diggers peppering the story, including one whose drug-fueled wasting illness, descent into insanity and sickening violation of Joey’s own mother’s buried body isn’t enough to keep Joey away. The maniacal teachings and philosophies of his father’s old enemy were grotesquely fascinating, like a terrible car accident that people stop traffic to gawk at.

A vile project by one whose right mind left him long ago, threatening to bring an end to a long, proud line of Diggers. Kraus occasionally pays homage to the history of grave-robbing by mentioning Scotland’s resurrection men, who dug up fresh bodies for medical study, and Leonardo da Vinci, who apparently used the bodies to study human form.

For the pièce de résistance, top with the subtle instances of alcoholism, bullying, bodily mutilation (of the live variety), necrophilia and the difficult journey of teenage self-realization.

Rotters was unlike any book I’d ever read. And I’ve read some dark ones. I feel like the “normal” elements of the story would appeal to any high schooler who’s ever been bullied at school or crushed on someone socially out of reach (myself included). It’s the parts that come in between, the dark, creepy parts that make you think twice about turning out the lights, that take a special kind of reader to enjoy. I’m not sure which line Kraus crossed to leave me feeling so uneasy after the book was finished (cuz he crossed a lot of lines with this one), but even now, while I’m writing what I feel is a kind of negative review, I want to pick up the book and read it over again.

Kraus, for all his gruesome genius, is a very gifted writer. I couldn’t help but laugh at some of his cleverly worded passages (there is, in fact, humor in this book as well!). His Diggers, in spite of all their oddness, dirt and stink, are somehow much more likable than anyone “normal” within the high school’s doors. The relationship between Joey and his father grows and develops in a very real way, in spite of the dark cacophony surrounding it, and though it isn’t all happy, the book has a pretty satisfying conclusion.

I would recommend this book to those with a very open mind and a very strong stomach. If you like things that are dark, creepy, twisted, suspenseful and more than a little shocking, you will probably enjoy the adventure of reading this book. If you are squeamish about anything I’ve mentioned above, take a pass because nothing I’ve written does justice to Kraus’ work.

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