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July 15, 2016

Reading : The Book Thief

The Beinecke, New Haven CT

In my high school English class, our teacher asked us to pair up and construct what we thought was the perfect sentence.  My best friend and I thought long and hard for the whole class to come up with ours. I can't remember what it was, but I think it had words like mist and canopy and I know we thought it was pretty perfect.

Then I went to college and majored in English and was promptly humbled.  The full title of my major was English and American Literature and Language which at the time seemed classicly and unnecessarily snobby.  It still is, but at the same time I've always loved the language aspect of books.  That a good story is filling, but a story told beautifully is lasting, and that often language alone can be so much irregardless of narrative.

Unintentionally after my last post on World War II fiction, I chose another World War II novel to read--The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak. I had chosen it due to reading recommendations, without knowing what it was really about, and I know I'm late on the bandwagon as it was published in 2006 and was hugely popular then. But in case you're like me and don't have the time to be regularly up to date on books, here's a really late recommendation.

One of the things I like about the story is that it centers around the life of average German citizens during the war.  A lot of World War II story rightly focuses on the directly persecuted, and The Book Thief definitely doesn't ignore this theme. At the center, though, is the nuanced, conflicted experience of others who aren't specific targets but whose lives are broken both piecemeal and all at once by the Nazis.

It's about a young girl named Liesel living in Germany with foster parents who later help to hide a Jewish man in the basement of their home.  Without formal education Liesel hasn't learned to read yet, but learns later in her life from her foster father, and their reading together is the grounding force for their bond.  She grows to fiercely love books, and begins to steal them from different places. The Jewish man writes and illustrates stories that he shares with her, and she's given the tools to make her own sentences.

The story is actually narrated by the figure of Death, who speaks about his experience carrying away the souls of the millions killed by this war.  But much of the language comes from this young girl's forming of her thoughts.  And it's amazing.  It's been a long time since I've read a new book and been really awed by the language.  I gave it five stars on Good Reads in huge part for the beauty and surprise of the sentences.

Some of my favorites:

"...It was like a great white beast," she said at her next bedside vigil, "and it came from over the mountains."
--In describing the sky, she captures so perfectly the simple magic of a person with wide open perspective looking at something.

"awoke and wondered at the height of her heart."
--I love the image of the heart having these two-dimensional measurements.  We talk a lot about its depth, acknowledging the emotional weight of it, but I think height gives such a great sense of the physical, visceral space it occupies.

"They did not say hello.
It was more like edges."
--It blows my mind sometimes how people can describe feelings in the exact way you feel them, in a way you would never have imagined to describe them.  That's how I feel about this description of the meeting of two people after a long time apart.

The Beinecke, New Haven CT

"I have hated the words
and I have loved them
and I hope I have made them right."
--I think these lines are the kind that are most beautiful when written as spoken by a young person who has experienced more tragedy than multiple generations of lives.

"There are lines on his cheek
Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion."
--Liesel's father plays the accordion, and this image of him mirroring his instrument just tugs at the heartstrings.

"Everything no longer worked."
--I love this powerful play on what would normally be "Nothing worked anymore."

"There would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness too. That was writing."
--I can relate.

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