Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: The Book Thief (Audio vs. Book)

When book suggestions were requested at my book club, I remember suggesting Markus Zusak's The Book Thief.  I declared it a "must-read."  Then, I read another book club member's book review of the book and began to second-guess my assertion.  She found it difficult to connect with the narrator, Death, and didn't find the book absorbing at the beginning.  Still, she muddled through and read the whole thing and wrote this review.

This was the selection for this month's book club meeting.  Previously, I reviewed my experience of listening to the audio version here.  In my review, I mention some of the drawbacks of listening to an audio version of a book.  For one, there were many times when I wanted to stop and ruminate on something I read.  This is not possible, without stopping the audio track and resuming after a time of reflection (not terribly likely as I usually listen in the car or while washing dishes).  Furthermore, if there are illustrations (which I discovered when reading the book this time around), then you lose something in not viewing the illustrations provided with the text.  Also, you lose certain stylistic elements of the book.  In this case, the author interjected side-notes among the text.  I'm sure the narrator read these side-notes, but in listening I wasn't as clear about what this looked like for the story.

There are certainly benefits to listening which cannot be duplicated in reading the book.  For one, the narrator becomes a central character more easily. I think this was Catherine's key complaint - not feeling connected to the character of the narrator in the story and thus, not caring fully for the other characters described.  Think of it this way.  The narrator is acting out, through voice, the story for the listener.  When you listen to an audio version, you are hearing a performance in addition to the story.  That performance can more fully sweep you into the story, if it is done well.  I think the narrator who read for the audio version of this book did an excellent job.  I was drawn in by his accent and by his interpretation of the text. If you want to hear a snippet of his enticing voice, drawing you into the story, you can click on the Amazon link and select "listen" under the picture of the book cover. He does a magnificent job articulating the story (be forewarned, though, it is not a book you can listen to with children in the vicinity, unless you don't care whether they hear both German and English cursing).

I will say that I struggled with the book more this time around.  It seemed unbearably long (at 550 pages).  I also had trouble connecting to the narrator this time around.  I understood Catherine's complaint that he seemed too detached from the story.  I didn't like him as a character, where I think I did like him the last time I listened to the book.

Another plus for the book version, is that you often get extras at the end of the tale.  In this case, my book provided discussion questions (which I found interesting and will probably be explored more fully at the meeting), related titles (including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, another book I would recommend), Internet resources, and a conversation with the author (something I enjoyed reading).  In the author's comments, he mentioned that when he first wrote the book, he struggled with the narrator.  He admits, "Death was too mean. He was supercilious, and enjoying his work too much. He'd say extremely creepy things and delight in all the souls he was picking up ... and the book wasn't working."  So, he tried writing it from a different point-of-view, but ended up coming back to the original narrator and toning him down some.  In the end, Zusak says, "he would now be telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it."

And, I think that is why, in the end, this story resonated with me again (although, perhaps, not as strongly as the first time around).  By the end of the tale, I was weeping and marveling at the dichotomous nature of humans, how we can be so thoroughly evil and yet also offer up such hope and love and wondrous beauty in the midst of the evil.  This is a tale of pain and suffering and hardship, yes.  But, it is also a tale of love, determination, survival, and beauty from ashes.  Add in the fact that the book celebrates writing and words and books and well ... you can see why it would be appealing to someone who loves writing and words and books.

I think this book deserves the praise it has been given.  While I found it more difficult to latch onto the second time around, it was still a story worth repeating and worth the hard work of getting to the point of caring about the characters and their stories.  I still love Liesel Meminger and her relationships with the key players ... her foster father, Hans Hubermann, her best friend, Rudy, her book enabler, Ilsa Hermann, her Jewish friend, Max Vandenburg, and her foster mother, Rosa Hubermann. I still feel a surge of pride that there were good people in a terrible time of history and I pray that there will be good people still when our society ventures into the terrible times which probably lay ahead.  There may always be evil, but good can and will triumph in the midst of it.

No comments: