Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Voice of Dissent: The Book Thief

By Melissa

I have a lousy track record with the sort of fiction books that get buzz. (Blogging has changed the buzz business, of course, but there are still some big, reliable sources: The New York Times Book Review, Oprah, the morning news shows, NPR, etc.) I feel like I should be reading them; the implied message is that these are the sort of books that every intelligent person should be reading. I'm intelligent, or at least I want to be, and so I respond to the buzz. But the problem is I invariably end up disliking the book. And so I have become cynical, cringing at the hype surrounding these books: nothing, I think, can be that good.

But there is one thing these books have all had in common: they are all written for an adult audience. So, when I finally picked up The Book Thief -- two years after the publication date, one year after it won a Printz Honor Award -- I was hopeful that I would like it, even with the hype surrounding it, precisely because it was not an adult fiction book.

It's because I'm one of those people, one who reads YA fiction for fun. (And not just YA fiction, middle grade fiction, too. Sometimes even picture books.) I have no job excuse: I'm not a children's librarian or a children's writer. I don't even have any aspirations to become either a writer or a librarian. I could claim that I'm pre-reading for my children, but I don't because it's not true. I read YA fiction because I love it.

I'm sure I could come up with a long list of reasons why I like YA better than adult fiction -- things like the writing is tighter, better edited, and usually more direct -- but I think the real reason is that I like the stories. I’ve found that what makes or breaks a book for me is an well-told story with sympathetic, engaging characters, stories with a strong beginning and a fitting end. I think it’s because my life is mostly chaos, and I have very little control, ultimately, over what my husband and children do in the course of a day. Life is open-ended, challenging, confusing and -- as my mother would often say -- most of all, it's daily. Whereas, for me, a book should be something predictable: having a beginning, middle and end, with a plot line that comes to a satisfying resolution. There is something comfortable in predictability, and YA fiction delivers that predictability more often than buzz-worthy adult fiction.

Back to The Book Thief, though. I was actually surprised I didn't like it. I'd heard nothing but good about it from people I respect and admire, and I was fully expecting to add my voice to the throng of praises. And under my criteria, I should have liked it. It's YA (or at least it has been categorized as one; my library shelves it in the adult section however). It's cleverly written; I thought having Death be the narrator was an innovative way to look at the horrors of Nazi Germany. (I could quibble a bit about whether it was "tight"... I have to admit that I skimmed sections of the book because the narration went on and on and on.) All together it's got an interesting, emotionally charged story that's well-told.

Yet... at first I was flummoxed: why wasn't I totally loving it? I kept reading, hoping that something would click, that the genre, or my blogging friends, wouldn't let me down. Eventually though, I had to come to terms with it: I just didn't like the book. I have come to realize my dislike boils down to three things: I couldn't connect with the characters, the narrator was getting in the way of the story, and the overall theme was overly despairing for my taste.

First, the characters. In order for me to truly enjoy a story, I need to be able to connect with the characters on some level; if I don't, then the (predictable, comfortable) ending that the story should come to won't do anything for me. And that means I need to be able to find something elemental in them that I can recognize, respect or admire. As I was reading, I appreciated that Zuzak was writing about everyday Germans, rather than Jews in concentration camps or Nazis or soldiers. I found it interesting to see the war from the point of view of someone who is just trying to survive. But there weren't any characters that I could truly connect to. That's not to say there weren't any -- the father, Hans, comes to mind as I'm writing this -- but I often felt that the despair of the situation, the closed-off nature of the characters themselves, and the distracting cleverness of the narrator, worked against my connection with the characters themselves. I often felt like an outsider looking in, like someone who's clinically analyzing the experiences of others, which makes it difficult to achieve the connection I'm looking for when I read.

Then there was Death. I liked Death, initially, laughing where I was supposed to laugh, and eventually even crying where I was supposed to cry. But I disliked the foreshadowing. Death says that he's not into the buildup and mystery of a normal story, but I am. I wanted to have a relationship with these characters, but on some level refused to do so because I knew that they would eventually die. I find endings where there are deaths to be more powerful if I'm not reminded throughout the book that these people would die, if it comes as a surprise (or if not a surprise, then at least with some buildup). But Death didn't provide any buildup -- on the contrary, his narration constantly defused any buildup, annoying me in the process, because his voice was robbing the story of a satisfying conclusion.

Then there's the overriding theme, which I felt something along the lines of: words can do good as well as harm, some people are good even in a bad situation, and some people survive. That's life. It doesn't inspire me, or even entertain me. (Yes, really, that's all I want out of my books: to learn, to be inspired, or to be entertained.)

In the end, I came to the conclusion that this book is like "The Pianist" or Elie Wiesel's Night: it's an interesting story, possibly an important one, but it's not one I want to cuddle up with, to read and reread, because there's no relationship, no closure, no ending or entertainment or inspiration to be found there. In a sense, it's an English class book: one to be respected and studied and analyzed and possibly imitated, for its language or its cleverness or its perspective. Just not really liked, at least by me. I'm okay with that. After all, the buzz-makers loved it.


raych said...

This was the first negative review I'd read of this book. I always feel like I have to read what everyone else is reading, if only because I hate being left out of a discussion, but I like to think I'm pretty unbiased (exception: I will read Eat, Pray, Love because everyone else is, but I'm fairly sure that I will hate it - whiny, self-absorbed women are not my thing).

ANYways, I finally found the time to plow through all 500-odd pages of The Book Thief, and I hated it. Vehemently. So it makes me feel very very good to come back and re-read this review, because I say yes to everything you said. And then I say some more nit-picky, quibbly things, because the writing just killed me.

In short, deep sigh of relief to know I'm not the only one singing Zusak's praises.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. I only found this review as I knew I could not be the only one who found the book annoying. I wont go on..you have already said it in your own words. But I am right there with you.

Anonymous said...

Hi, you may be interested that The Sunday Times, (Tom Deveson) gave a fairly negative review back in 2007. Part quote from it :-
"This over-praised, overlong novel is in trouble before it starts. The acknowledgments open with a tribute to someone “who is as warm as she is knowledgeable” and continue in the same saccharine manner. In the prologue we are met by pompous phrases (“the jigsaw puzzle of realisation, despair and surprise”) or are annoyed by silly metaphors (“the greying light arm-wrestled the sky”). There are many two-word sentences: “ __The survivors.” “One corpse.” “The sirens.” Indeed, there are many two-word paragraphs. The grim thought occurs that writing like this has helped the book to its position at the top of the American bestseller lists." Sunday Times Jan 2007

We are studying the book at college. I didn't totally dislike it, however, I couldn't completely engage in it. I found it interesting but hard to connect with the characters, as has already been mentioned here. Plus, the form of writing just seems to get in the way of the actual book. By that I mean it makes it difficult to read, I am made aware that I am actually reading a novel, I can't get 'lost' in the story because I am constantly reminded I am reading a book
'Stupid little interludes"

Amy Alrawi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julian Allen said...

This book is just badly written. I cannot understand any of the praise it has received. It was so bad that I couldnt finish it and left it on the train. His metaphors are awful and the Death narrator is completely ham-fisted. It is an insult to the subject matter.