I happened to read these books one after the other – The Book Thief first and then The Reader. And since I’m feeling very ambitious today, I’ll attempt to tackle both these books – New York Times Best Seller and critically acclaimed, no less – in one post!
I’m not combining them just because of their serendipitous proximity in my meandering reading plan, but rather because they both tackle Nazi Germany, with books and reading as common ingredients. They follow very different paths though in style and story-telling. And while I really liked The Book Thief, The Reader left me cold and a little annoyed.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is told from the point of view of Death – apt since it was a busy time for him, giving him the advantage of many perspectives and a broad overview of the life and times. If I remember correctly, it was on one of those lists: Books for Book Lovers… It is a delicious read, one of those that I’ll definitely go back to and reread.
Synopsis: The protagonist is 8 year old Liesel, the book thief. She starts her book stealing career with the unlikely Gravediggers Handbook. This book serves as the means by which she learns to read. She continues stealing books and devouring them. Liesel’s foster mother is a rough-around-the edges woman who does not know how to show that she cares. Although she constantly abuses Liesel, she does grow to love her foster daughter.
Her foster father teaches her to read, comforts her when she has nightmares, plays the accordion to entertain her, and is her companion and champion in many ways. He is forced to become a member of the Party to protect himself and his family, but he has definite anti-Nazi views. Liesel’s best friend is Rudy, who wants to be Jesse Owens – he is her companion in all her adventures and thieving forays. Into this enters Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man whom the Hubermanns (Liesel’s foster parents) hide in their basement. Liesel’s interest in books and reading is also what helps the community band together and survive during some life-threatening situations.
In spite of the the horrific nature of the subject matter (Nazi camps, atrocities against Jews), there is a child-like innocence and openness about this book that made me fall in love with it. The characters, starting with Death are caricatures, but believable and very likable all the same.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink pales in comparison. I would not get excited about it even if there was no comparison. Even The Graduate-like beginning with an affair between a school kid and a much older woman was not all that engrossing. The rest of the story, in spite of the moral dilemma that is tackled, was just ehh…
Synopsis: [Spoiler Alert] Michel Berg, a school kid, has a tempestuous affair with a much older woman, Hanna. Through the period of their relationship, Hanna insists that Michel read out to her from classical literature. The relationship is strange, not because of their age, but because Hanna is stubbornly secretive and does not really open herself to Michel. She suddenly disappears and leaves town, leaving Michel devastated. When Michel sees Hanna again many years later, he is a law student and she is a defendant in a war crimes case. During the course of the proceedings, Michel realises that while Hanna was not totally innocent of the crimes she was charged with, she is letting herself become a scapegoat rather than admit her shortcoming – the fact that she can’t read. This is the fact that the case hinges on, and would have ensured that Hanna did not bear the brunt of the accusation.
I was not thrilled with Hanna’s character right from the beginning – too broody and not enough explained. Michel having difficulty getting a handle on his life because of his relationship with Hanna was annoying and not convincing to me.
Books and reading play a big part in both books – in The Book Thief they foster learning, bonding and exploring. In The Reader, they have deeper, darker repercussions.