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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Do you ever have those books that you’ve been meaning to read for years and years, but when the time comes to start a new book, you look at it on your shelf and think, “maybe next time”?  That is The Book Thief for me.  It’s been recommended to me since the time it was published (2007, for those of you who are interested to know just how long my procrastination can extend) and I’ve always wanted to read it.  I guess I just always wanted to read something else more.  Then, I started my teachers-only summer book club and sure enough, most of us had been putting this book off.  We vowed that at last, we would read it!

So here’s a brief outline of what it was that “we” read:  A young girl, Liesel, and her brother are being sent to foster care.  She doesn’t realize it yet, but it’s the beginning of Hitler’s power in Germany, and her parents are what Hitler considered unsavory characters (not Jews – Communists).  En route, her brother dies and in the commotion, Liesel notices a book has been left behind in the snow.  She takes it, starting a long career as, you guessed it, a book thief.  One problem: she can’t read.

Her foster father discovers this and begins teaching her.  As Liesel’s hunger for books grows stronger, so does Hitler’s power.  The story changes as Hitler’s power grows – they harbor a young Jewish man who becomes part of Liesel’s reading and writing journey.  Ultimately, the book focuses less on Hitler’s atrocities and more on the effects not on his Jewish prisoners, but on every day Germans under his rule.

In case you were wondering, by the time my book club met, only one person had finished the book.  In my defense, I was only 12 pages to the end, and finished it later that night.

I may be acting a little unfairly here.  As a young adult novel, The Book Thief is good – though long.  I can imagine several of my students absolutely gobbling up, and that is exactly the attitude I want when selecting a new book.  It has a lot of creative elements that I feel worked really well – having Death as the narrator, for example.  The biggest challenge for The Book Thief in my opinion is that it’s a book about the Holocaust.  And while it’s a fascinating and worthy subject, there are a LOT of books in this genre, and the competition is fierce because a lot of them are done incredibly well.  While I didn’t dislike The Book Thief, I did feel, at times, that it was simply more of the same.

Here’s what I did like: Death as the narrator.  This was a really cool creative touch, and it was done in a sophisticated and new way.  It wasn’t morbid or dependent on cliché – Death was insightful, neutral, and surprisingly human.  I loved that.  Also interesting was the focus on German characters throughout.  So many books in this genre focus on the unbelievable cruelty in the concentration camps and while this aspect can’t be ignored in The Book Thief, I think it was a bold and wise decision to step away from it because it’s so prevalent in this type of literature that it can often become desensitizing to the reader – exactly what the author would likely want to avoid.  Instead, Zusak focuses on the German neighbors in Liesel’s village – and artfully exposes that not all Germans were evil, or even agreed with Hitler’s views.  Some did, for valid (though misguided) reasons.  And some were just plain evil.  I like literature as an exploration of the human condition and Zusak captured the complexity of the situation and the people involved extremely well.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 stars.  Because it’s intended for young adults, it didn’t have quite the sophistication or pull for me that I prefer, but it is an interesting read, and one that I predict most teenagers will really get a lot out of.  ★★★

Becca’s Summer Reading List

IT IS SUMMER AT LAST!  Having completed my first year as a high school teacher, I am so unbelievably excited to spend time reading what I want, when I want, where I want.  On the beach?  I can do that!  In bed, despite it being in the middle of the day?  Already did it, and I’m not sorry!  Coffee shops, my patio, terrace cafes – I’m so excited to do some lounge reading as opposed to frantically-becoming-an-expert-on-before-teaching reading.  Oh, and everyone who thinks kids look forward to summer more than their teachers – you have obviously never taught!  I am ecstatic!  This summer, on my somewhat ambitious reading list are the following:

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: I’ve been meaning to read this book to aid me in my teaching for years, but never had the time to sit down and actually finish it.  Anyone who is an avid reader and wants to know what’s going on in their books at a higher level should check this out – it’s like taking a college English class but on your own time and in your pjs, if necessary.

Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Gailbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling): I love Harry Potter an unhealthy amount and really enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy as well – so I’ll read anything by this author.  I’m excited since this is a private detective story following the suspicious death/suicide of a young supermodel.  Looks fun!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: I will admit, I know almost nothing about what this book is about.  On my way to Boston, I met another high school English teacher in an airport bar and was chatted books for an hour – it was lovely!  She mentioned that Neil Gaiman is one of her favorite authors, so when I saw this at the library, I thought I’d give it a go!

Juliet by Ann Fortier: I just finished teaching Romeo and Juliet, and am still a little obsessed.  This book is a combo of modern/historical characters – which I love – and follows Julie, who upon receiving a key to a safe deposit box in Sienna realizes that her ancestor was Juliet (yes, THAT Juliet) and Mercutio’s dying words, “A plague on both your houses…” is quite possibly a real curse still at work today.  The curse’s obvious next victim?  Julie!

The Happiness Project: or why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun by Gretchen Craft Rubin: I wrote my masters thesis on positive psychology in the classroom and now dedicating most of my waking hours to a high-stress job that can make me elated and absolutely miserable, often in the same week.  I want to be happy.  So I want to read this book!

Mean Genes: from sex to money to food, taming our primal instincts by Terry Burnham: There’s not much to say other than I studied evolutionary psychology in college and love reading this stuff.  Are we slaves to nature?  How much self-determination do humans really have?  I’ll let you know when I read it.  (Oh, and maybe the next time a furious student throws a phone at me, I’ll know it’s not her fault… it is just those mean genes!)

The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak: How have I not read this book yet??  I’ve been meaning to for years, and now, in a teacher book club that meets only in the summer months, I am!  Set in 1939 Nazi Germany, a young foster girl collects books that don’t belong to her – and shows how literature can be a powerful, life-changing force.  I’d love to use this for supplemental literature in my 10th grade English class in the future!

Water, Stone, Heart by Will North: Not too long ago on Facebook, an ad popped up that said something along the lines of “Did you love The Forgotten Garden?  Then you’ll love the newest book by Will North, Water, Stone, Heart!”  Well, I DO love The Forgotten Garden.  So I ordered this book without so much as reading a description of it.  Now that I have it, it looks like classic chick-lit.  It is set in England, and tells the story of a woman escaping an ugly divorce and a (I’m assuming HOT) professor of architecture whose wife has just left him.  Who cares what else it’s about – I’m gobbling this one up for sure!

I’m also spending a little time this summer working on a few writing pieces (if I ever stray from my reading list long enough to accomplish anything).  It’s slow going, and I’m not happy with much that I have on paper yet… but I’m starting!  And let me tell you, I have IMMENSE respect for all of the authors we’ve reviewed on the blog.  Writing is not an easy task at all, but oh, how thankful I am for the fruits of writers’ labors.  Enjoy your summer – and don’t forget that a good book and some SPF should be on you 24/7!

– Becca