Friday, July 11, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-06-28 through 2014-07-04

Another week with just one book review. This recovery stuff is tough. I've been spending a lot more time sleeping than I expected, which would be awesome if I was just relaxing but instead it's because the healing and the painkillers are leaving me pretty much good for nothing else. It took a lot of determination to keep myself awake long enough even get through this one book and I was already halfway done with it when the week started.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller that will be in movie theaters on November 15, 2013, Markus Zusak's unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul.

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can't resist--books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

I had a very mixed reaction to this book. I liked it in many ways, but I found also it very unsatisfying.

I suppose a lot of that comes from it not being my usual kind of read. I'm not big on literary fiction. I read most of the time for entertainment and enjoyment as well as intellectual stimulation and I like best those books that stretch my mind and imagination in equal measure.

Literary fiction seems to run more toward writing for the writing's sake rather than the reader's. Books that are there just to be there don't really do much for me. I'm not saying every book needs to be a ripping good yarn or anything, but the story should, in my opinion, at least be mildly compelling.

This book, unfortunately, took me three months to finish. On a technical level, the writing was beautiful. Zusak does have a way with words, a talent for turning clich├ęs sideways and presenting description in unexpected terms. It just couldn't hold my attention. When faced with downtime and my choice was to pick up this book and read a little more or to do just about anything else, 90% of the time I chose the something else.

I've been giving it a lot of thought, because this story should have been compelling. This is a coming-of-age story about a girl in Nazi Germany. She's living out the very normal human story of adolescence in the midst of terrible danger. There are complex questions of loyalty and humanity there being mixed up with the boy next door asking for a kiss. That's a big, dramatic premise with a ton of potential on just about every level.

Plus, there's a lot of discussion in this novel about books and words and their ability to challenge and change us. I'm a writer and I love words and I believe very strongly in the power of them. So this novel should have appealed to me in that way too.

But ultimately it just didn't. And I think the culprit was Death.

Many people have complained about the "spoilery" way Death tells the story, but I didn't have a problem with that. The story is presented as a recollection and we rarely express our memories in chronological order. We don't usually bury the lede when we tell people our stories and I feel like Death would certainly think of people first in how they died and then second in how they lived. The "spoilers" didn't seem as much like spoilers to me as a function of Death's character.

(Plus, this is a story about life in Nazi Germany being told by Death. If you went into it expecting everyone to live happily ever after, wow did you pick the wrong subject matter.)

No, my issue with Death as the narrator is that he kept pushing me away from the story. The Book Thief is "about" Liesel, but it's really more Death's story than hers. As I understand it, he's trying to relate his time during WWII to us through Liesel's story, which I felt was a unique approach to the idea. And as a narrative device, it was very well done. Death's voice is very clear and his way of looking at things is just unusual enough to seem alien without being completely inaccessible.

But the use of Death as the narrator also wedged a huge amount of distance between Liesel and the reader. I wasn't as interested in her tale as I wanted to be because I wasn't close enough to connect with her. And Death, having been written as something "other", was also disconnected, leaving me with nothing to anchor my interest in the story.

WWII was a horrible moment in history and the fact that people continued to live and grow and sometimes even thrive in that time says amazing things about the very nature of humanity. Books can transport us into those moments and teach us things about ourselves in a way that nothing else can. I wanted this book to sweep me into itself, to make me relate to the characters and connect to them on an emotional as well as intellectual level, and come back questioning things about my own life and experiences. But it didn't. That narrative distance, while novel, kept me firmly outside the story.

On the rare occasions that Zusak did manage to close that distance and actually let the reader feel the story, it was brilliant. There was a scene at the end that had me tearing up. So the potential was certainly there. But for most of the story, I wasn't involved in Liesel's journey and I just didn't care.

Overall, I think it was a very well-written novel and it could be a good tool for study and discussion in an educational context. As a writer, there are bits and pieces of description that I want to take home and examine. But as a general work of fiction, it wasn't a very compelling read.

I'm really curious to see if any of you felt the same or if I'm alone in this reaction. Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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