At a holiday party in December, a new Winterset friend invited me to join her book club. In all my years of avid fiction and nonfiction consumption, I’ve never belonged to a formal circle of readers. Just being asked made me feel like I’d fallen in love!
January’s title was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in 2005, set in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. From the back cover, I learned Zusak’s novel spent ten years on the New York Times Bestseller List, that it’s been translated into forty languages, and that it has sold over sixteen million copies. Naturally, I was predisposed to like The Book Thief.
The deeper I got into the story, to my dismay, instead I found a lot to dislike, and I began to worry about the upcoming meeting, fearing I’d be a wet blanket or perceived as a literary snob if I criticized our hostess’s selection at my very first meeting. I felt like a kid asked to the cool kid’s birthday party, anxious to be liked.
I should have known better. Only one member truly loved the book, for reasons she described beautifully. Others were warm or lukewarm, and what a great time we had discussing the characters, plot, themes, and historical context. I love my book club!
My personal take on The Book Thief is that the story of Liesel, Rosa, Hans, and the other characters is a good one, deserving to be told; I just didn’t care for the way it was told. I didn’t mind Death as the narrator, but I disliked his jokey, conversational tone. I disliked the boldface, spoiler-alert “marquees” the author inserted throughout. I disliked what I viewed as sloppy writing, phrases such as, “the streets were like oil soaked pages,” and “the children’s smiles were like salt.”
In the end, though, as a novelist whose own novel may not ever see print, my heart was softened when I googled Zusak and found some interviews with him. He said when he wrote The Book Thief, he didn’t know if it would ever be published. He also said his goal was to write a book that would be someone’s favorite book. That’s totally legit. I’m just not that someone.
I’m hosting in February. I chose Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter!
I will be interesting in hearing about the discussion of The Scarlet Letter. I haven’t read it since high school, and I didn’t like it very much then.
Liz, if you have time, maybe you should give The Scarlet Letter another read. It’s short—only about 150 pages. Hester Prynne, the protagonist, is, IMHO, among the strongest characters in American literature. The men in the book don’t fare so well, and Hawthorne uses great irony to skewer the hypocritical Puritans.
Being a guy who never quits on a book, I feel your pain. You gotta read more than a few stinkers to get to the good stuff.
I had a similar reaction to The Book Thief. It was one of those books I was told I would love, and while I certainly liked parts of it, I didn’t love it. It never really resonated with me emotionally, and like you, I found it gimmicky. So you’re not alone, Marianne–and I’m glad you weren’t alone in your group, either!
Since this book has been on my To Read list for a while, I found your review inciteful and helpful. Keep on ‘keeping it real.’
I don’t remember reading the book, and so I shall. I was able to download The Scarlet letter to my kindle app for free today. Reading will commence latter, have a few notes to write and some quilt blocks to stitch.
Book Thief: Loved the book and the movie! Haven’t read The Scarlet Letter in a very long time. Might have to try that again.
Read the book a few years ago. As someone who has lived in a Jewish community and had a landlord who had been in Auschwitz I think any story of this nature should be shared and that comments about the style or fonts or whatever are far far from secondary.