Tag Archive: Markus Zusak


I enjoy different brands of writing style for different reasons.  When I’m reading an adventure story, like SHIPBREAKER, I want the prose to be easy to read.  Descriptive elements are fine but don’t give me too much to ponder.  You’ll lose the adventure-style pacing.  At the same time, I’m a writer so I love words.  I read Jane Austen aloud because I love the way she sounds.  Her books are social satire so stopping to think about phrasing and meaning doesn’t take away from the story-telling at all.

In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, the writing style is almost literary.  I knew this was a holocaust story and I knew that it was categorized as young adult so I was a little bit surprised.  But as I read on, I think I understood what Mr. Zusak was doing.  Again, this is about the point of view character.  Death.  By filling the prose with figures of speech, Mr. Zusak manages to maintain a surreal, water-color feel around the book.  Even though the setting is based on historical Germany, even though there’s nothing supernatural about the story, there’s still a dreamlike quality, thanks to the writing style.  Consider this bit of storytelling from Death’s point of view:

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.

Earlier kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages.  When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes.  The feet tapping the road.  The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.

What an image!  A red soup sky!  What does it mean?  I have no idea but I have a strong mental picture of something I’ve never seen. And since I’ve already confessed that my mind’s eye needs glasses, giving me a great visual is quite an accomplishment.  And smiles like salt.  Not sweet.  Easily dissolving.  So few words but with a ton of meaning.

At the end of my edition of THE BOOK THIEF, there’s “A conversation with Markus Zusak”.  In it, he states that he likes the idea that every page of a book can have a gem on it.  If he doesn’t manage to do just that, he comes pretty close.  Some of my favorites?

  • …the minutes soaked by.
  • Frau Diller was a sharp-edged woman….
  • If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.
  • His eyes were the color of agony….

As you can see, Mr. Zusak uses words in a way that almost makes literal sense.  You can imagine the “color of agony” even if agony isn’t a color.  You can sense how minutes might “soak by” even if they aren’t liquid.  We’ve all known someone who was “sharp-edged”.  They are surprising turns of phrase, but they work nonetheless.

I also think that Death’s voice is a preview of the adult Liesel.  Her story covers her life from age nine to fourteen.  During this time she learns how to read and write.  It would be hard to have a literary style from Liesel’s point of view because she is still building her vocabulary.  However, about halfway through the book, the Jewish boy living in her basement asks about the weather.  Liesel answers:

The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big, long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope.  At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….

There’s a literary bent in the way Liesel thinks that’s very similar to Death’s.  And lest you think that Markus Zusak only has one voice, the dialog is a whole other animal.  It’s earthy (to be kind).  There’s much swearing and name-calling in German.  Kids sound like kids.  Adults sound like adults.  It’s only through the Death narration that we get this delicious literary quality that I enjoyed so much.

So, that’s THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak.  I enjoyed this book.  There’s so much to discuss I could probably write another week worth of posts about it.  But I won’t; I’ll move on to something else and leave you to enjoy this gem on your own.

I hope everyone has had a great Monday and I’ll see you Wednesday.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

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So here’s the thing about THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak:

You know how it’s going to end.

I don’t mean that in a general It’s-World-War-II-We-All-Know-How-It-Ends kind of way.  I mean it very literally.  Before we get the setting of Himmel street, before we know what year it is, before we even know Liesel’s name, death tells us how the book is going to end.  Page twelve through fifteen is the closing scene.  Of course you get an emotionally raw, extended version from page 529-539, but it isn’t a shock; you know it’s coming.  No tension.  No suspense.  There it is.

So, why would Mr. Zusak do this?  I think the answer is simple.  He does this because this is how he believes that Death would tell a story.  In fact, Death spells it out for you about halfway through the book

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

Rare is the day that you get a good self-analysis by an author about his own writing through one of his own characters.  But it’s all too true.  As a writer, you’re told to make sure the stakes and tension are high.  What’s higher than putting someone in a life and death situation and spinning the wheel of Fate?  In THE BOOK THIEF, life and death is part of the setting.  Nazi Germany was a dangerous place.  But instead of using that, Death is going to tell you straight up who dies.  He even gives you a little countdown.

If all that’s true, then what made me keep turning the pages?  As Death tells us, it’s the machinations–it’s life and living it–that is the interesting part. There’s daily drama that’s compelling enough.  Where will Liesel get her next book?  Will she keep having nightmares about the death of her brother?  Will she finally kiss Rudy (although Death spoils that one for us too)?  What will happen to the Jewish boy they have hidden in the basement? How will life change when the war really comes to Munich?  The details of life are compelling enough to pull a reader through a book without needing anything more.

I’m not saying that Death doesn’t drop a few breadcrumbs.  He indicates when Liesel is going to steal another book and where she might go to get it.  He refers to something as “The Jesse Owens Incident” and lets you wait a few chapters before you get the rest of the story.  He calls Liesel “The Heavyweight Champion of the Schoolyard” and then spins out the story after he has your interest.  It’s an interesting device actually. I learned that if you hint at an incident and make sure you do it with a good hook, your reader will probably hang out to get the whole story.  In THE BOOK THIEF, it works well more than once.

Obviously, there’s more to the plotting than what I’ve presented here.  That was also true of the characters and setting and I suspect it’s going to also be true when I play with the writing style in the next post.  And that’s one of the delights of this book. It’s one of those books that you can re-read, even if you’re not a re-reader, and find something new to analyze, discuss, or pick at.

Until Monday…I hope everyone has a good weekend!

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

Nazi Germany.  It’s so familiar; it almost feels like a cliché.  In THE BOOK THIEF we see something new in Hitler’s Germany.  And I think that’s  because Markus Zusak thinks small.

The setting for THE BOOK THIEF is Molching, Germany, a small, fictional town outside of Munich.  Within the small town setting, Mr. Zusak focuses on Himmel street.  By page fifty of THE BOOK THIEF, we get a roll-call of the people of Himmel street.  Liesel and her foster parents, the Hubermanns; Frau Holtzapfel and her decade-long grudge against Mrs. Hubermann; Ruby Steiner, Liesel’s best friend; Frau Diller, the loyal Nazi, Tommy Miller, a twitchy, sweet misfit; and Pfiffikus, the man who whistles and swears too much.  It’s a microcosm of the war.  One loyal to Hitler (Diller), one defiant (Liesel’s foster father), and everyone else just trying to survive.  And it’s few enough characters that in a five-hundred and fifty page book, you can get to know each one pretty well.

Using such a small town setting was a brilliant choice.  In ways, it felt almost like Mayberry or Maycomb, Alabama.  I know this sounds crazy: Liesel’s foster mother is vicious with the wooden spoon, bullies grasp for power among the small-town childhood gangs, and starving Jews are marched through their town on the way to Dachau.  Still, at the same time, the children played ball games in the street and got into mischief (or even a little trouble).  There’s a little light romance.  If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you could almost envision the kids.  At the same time, this horrible war and genocide is happening.  Can you feel my unease at the two conflicting images?  It’s boggling.

Here’s another place where thinking small really worked.  There was really only one Jewish person in THE BOOK THIEF.  Although there are nameless lines of Jewish people marching to Dachau, only Max Vandenburg, the man hidden in Liesel’s basement, represents the Jewish point of view.  Just one name and voice for the millions killed during the Holocaust.  And, man, is it effective.  You feel his guilt and fear and anger.  He daydreams about having a fist-fight with Hitler.  He is a stark representation of the rage that German-Jewish population must have felt and their confusion as to where to focus their anger.

Finally, thinking small leads us to Liesel and Rudy, the two protagonists of this story.  There’s a real advantage in telling the story from the most powerless position–that of children.  Liesel and Rudy each have their own small rebellions–Rudy’s very non-PC attachment to Olympic hero Jessie Owens and Liesel’s propensity to steal books.  But, for the most part, they have very little control over their own destiny.  Liesel is forced to leave her mother to live with her foster parents. They both go to Hitler Youth.  And yet, they each have more freedom than Max.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Death as the point of view character.  I thought this was amazing.  It could have been so cheesy but not it Mr. Zusak’s hands.  Death is a character bothered and intrigued by humanity.  He describes war as an over-demanding boss, always requiring more.  And he’s funny.  Some of the commentary actually had me snickering because of the dry, black wit.

The characters are so well put together, that I could probably spend a blog post on each one.  Honestly, the character development in Liesel from the time she comes to Himmel Street to the end of the book is so dramatic that you feel like you’re watching her mature.  Rudy’s arc isn’t quite so striking, but he’s still a well-rounded character with some beautiful depth.  Frau and Herr Hubermann, Liesel’s foster parents, deserve a mention but I don’t know where to start.  If I had to draw a comparison, I would use Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.  And, yes, it sounds odd to me too.

So next time, I’m going to tackle the plotting.  What keeps me turning the pages in THE BOOK THIEF?  Because truth be known, I finished the book in under twenty four hours.  Until next time.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

I’m in love.

My mother introduced us.

This week, my Mother sent me THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak (Thanks Mom!).  I couldn’t wait to blog about it.  I’m going to have to watch my blog post lengths because there’s so much to talk about.  My mother read THE BOOK THIEF as part of her book club and told me that everyone had something good to say about it.  I understand why.  Realistic characters, some of which I would love to know; a beautiful, almost poetic writing style; and a compelling plot.  This book has it all.

THE BOOK THIEF isn’t Markus Zusak’s debut novel; he has three previous novels.  The most notable is I AM THE MESSENGER, the winner of the Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature.  THE BOOK THIEF was published in 2005 and has won a variety of awards as well, including the Printz Honor and Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year.  It’s definitely worth your time to check out his website.  There, he talks a little bit about his writing routines and admits that it took him seven years to publish a book (Oh, thank you for that little bit of hope, Mr. Zusak!).  Also, I wanted to link you to my favorite version of the cover art because I just thought it was so cool.  By the way, that’s not the cover art above–just an image I liked. 🙂

THE BOOK THIEF is the story of a girl named Liesel.  After her mother is accused of Communism in Nazi Germany, she and her brother are shipped to couple in a small town outside of Munich.  Sadly, her brother dies on train ride to their new home.  While he’s being buried, two things happen: Liesel steals a book called “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” and she’s catches the interest of Death, himself.  The rest of the book follows the next four years of Liesel’s life as she struggles to learn how to read, to make sense of the kindness and unkindness of humanity, and survive in the throes of World War II era Germany.

Two things separate this book from other historical fictions of Nazi Germany.  First, this story is about a lower middle class German family.  Many of the stories I’ve read or seen from this era are about Jewish families or take place in concentration camps.  By placing the story in a non-Jewish German family, it really gives the reader a unique viewpoint.  Second, the point of view character in this book is Death.  It really, really worked.  Death was a weary, curious, sympathetic character, completely confused by humanity.  I thought it was a very interesting choice.

You might have noticed that the subject matter in this book is pretty heavy, even though it is classified as young adult.  I think this book is for the mature young adult reader.  THE BOOK THIEF is classified as young adult for some of the same reasons that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD might get the same designation if it was published today.  They both have a protagonist in the tween to teen age range.  However, the themes–death, guilt, doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing–are mature.  I think this could be enjoyed by any adult reader and might not be the right choice to woo a reluctant reader.

Like I said above, I’m really looking forward to writing the blogs about this book.  Like usual, my next post will discuss characters and setting, the following one looks at plotting, then my last one for this book will be about Mr. Zusak’s writing style. I’ll see you Wednesday!

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.