The Book Thief: A Holocaust Novel with a Twist

There is an incredibly amount of hype and acclaim surrounding The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak and it is all deserved. It is successfully conceptual in the best possible way. It is an innovative book for young people (although I think it was more literary fiction than young adult fiction) about the Holocaust – which is not small feat.

The book is basically a series of narrative lyric poems, following young German orphan Liesel Meminger, living in a poor neighborhood outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. The twist, besides the poetic quality, is that the book is narrated by Death.

Liesel deals with the tragedy and lack of control in her life through an impressive career of stealing books. Seeing her grow up, watching her neighborhood transform through the stages of WW2, and hearing the viewpoint of death camps, conditions for Soviet soldiers, and the Normandy invasion all through the lens of Death is fascinating. It is strange twist on the omnipresent narrator.

The characters in Liesel’s life are richly imagined and complexly explained. A particular favorite is her best friend, who after the 1936 achieves neighborhood fame by covering his entire body in coal dust and pretending to be Jesse Owens.

Without giving any spoilers away, I will say the book contains a lot of the traditional elements of holocaust fiction (i.e. main character realizing Jews are not the enemy, etc.). What is nontraditional, aside from the POV, writing style, and structure, is the theme of the importance of words, reading, writing and books. The books in Liesel’s collection, ranging from a grave digging how to guide, to a banned book stolen from a bonfire, to a handmade account of a Jew – all have symbolic and thematic significance.

My only criticism is that while the book is beautiful, I didn’t find it engaging. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: Metaphor, allegory or just meh?

*** there are some light spoilers in this review.

I really like the idea behind Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. The book started as a collection of peculiar photographs of children, and that is where the story starts.

Sixteen year-old Jacob is dealing with the before and after of his beloved grandfather’s death. No one else has ever understood him, and no one believes him when he describes his grandfather’s murder.  Jacob had his grandfather’s stories of hiding from the monsters on an island with magical children during the Holocaust and a collection of photographs from this time.

I enjoyed the first section of the book, covering his grief and people’s reaction to his stories. The second half, when he travels to the island (I won’t tell you what he finds there) relied too much on the photographs and not enough on narrative and character development.

While I didn’t hugely enjoy, or dislike, the book there were aspects I found interesting. I think it is a hugely innovative way to think about the Holocaust and World War II.  The children in the grandfather’s story are all being kept on the island because of their strange powers and abilities. They are also suspended in childhood, and have very little control over their time. I couldn’t help wondering if this was a strange allusion to concentration camps.

There are terrible monsters, hunting only these types of children, and special informers that blend into society. Jacob questions whether these stories are his grandfather’s allegorical way of being able to talk about his child as a Polish Jew in the 1940s. These are interesting ideas, but they aren’t taken far enough to work in the book.

The photographs were my favorite part of the book. While I didn’t dislike it, I don’t see why it has been so enormously popular, spending 45 weeks on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list for children’s chapter books.

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