THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak
The first time Death met Liesel Meminger, the book thief, she was on a train with her mother and her little brother, traveling to a foster home near Munich where the children could escape the shadow of their father’s identity as a Kommunist. It was the little brother’s soul that Death had come to collect. As he cradled the little boy’s soul in his arms and watched the living grieve, Death did not know that he would meet the book thief two more times during her childhood, nor that he would find her journal in the wreckage of a bomb-torn city and would read it again and again, memorizing her story and always carrying it with him. He shares Liesel’s story with the readers in his own way–recounting the mischief she concocts with Rudy Steiner, the complicated but ultimately loving relationships in her foster family, the struggle of learning to read, poverty and hunger in the Third Reich, the terrifying business of hiding a Jew and the powerful friendship that results from it, the complex intertwining of patriotism, loyalty, and morality–all over-layed with Death’s observations of the tragedy of war and the enduring hope and beauty of life.
Ultimately, it is the words—of the author, of the characters, of the past—that bring the story to life so vibrantly and unforgettably. This is a book to be savored. It is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. There are no real plot twists; Death tells you the ending at the beginning. The book is about the journey of the characters and their complex, beautiful relationships. Zusak does not neglect even the minor characters, making them all irresistibly complicated and human. I warn you, you will fall in love with characters in this book, and their stories will stay with you–as they did for the narrator, Death. Your heart will likely break at some of the tragedies they endure. But it is worth it for the journey you share with them, just as Death demonstrates that even the shortest lives captured in Liesel’s journal have profound and enduring beauty and meaning. The Book Thief has been my Favorite Book Of All Time since I first read it in 2006, and it will take an extraordinary book to ever supplant it in my affection. I cannot recommend it highly enough for teens and for adults.
If you liked The Book Thief for its themes and characters, you might like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.
If you liked The Book Thief for its subject matter and narrative style, you might like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut tried for years to write a book that captured his experience as an American soldier in a Dresden POW camp during the night of bombing that claimed 135,000 lives–most of them civilians–in World War II. He finally does so through the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former soldier who has come unstuck in time, traveling back and forth through moments of his life without any control over his movements. He has also had the unique experience of being abducted by the Trafalmadorians, an alien race which understands time very differently from Earthlings. His story is told in the style of Trafalmadore: brief moments packaged together in an order that makes no sense linearly but can be experienced as a unified whole.
Vonnegut uses time and science fiction to frame an event that can only be grasped with an appropriate backdrop of absurd horror. The story is powerfully told, and is a book that I find I must savor, reading it slowly, taking pauses, and allowing the writing and meaning to fully sink in. It is a great book for adults and older teens who enjoyed The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and/or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If you enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five and have not read the aforementioned, you might enjoy them as well.
COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY by Hans Keilson
Wim and Marie took a great risk welcoming Nico into their home. Although most people in Holland disapproved of the Nazi occupation, to hide a Jew was a particularly dangerous form of resistance. But after only a year, they discovered that the only thing more challenging than hiding a live Jew is disposing of a dead one.
Comedy in a Minor Key identifies itself as a “black comedy,” but that label might be misleading. The novella presents a heartrending situation bluntly with a cold, bitter irony that highlights the absurdity of the situation. The brief story begins with Nico’s death, then uses flashbacks to provide glimpses of prior events, the challenges, the growing relationships, the emotions and motivations, and the community that developed around hiding a Jew. It is a short and thought-provoking read that isn’t quite as dark and horrific as much World War II fiction.
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
In post-World War II London, Juliet Ashton is trying to focus on her career as a writer and to figure out how to deal with Mr. Markham Reynolds, the stranger who has been sending her flowers, when she receives a slightly unusual letter. A man living on the Channel Island of Guernsey has come into possession of a used book that used to belong to her. He loves it so much that he has written to see if she has suggestions for further reading. As their friendly correspondence grows into a friendship, Juliet begins to learn about the impact that the German occupation has had on the lives of the islanders, and of the sometimes humorous ways that they resisted their German conquerors.
This book is a charming, hopeful story of friendship and romance, told through a series of letters between Juliet, Dawsey (of Guernsey), and their other acquaintances. It is a light read, and could be good for a book group.
THE ASSASSIN’S GALLERY by David L. Robbins
No moon shines over the dark waters of the Newburyport coast as a Persian assassin slithers ashore. Her mission: to kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. Only Professor Mikhal Lammeck has a chance of tracking the elusive Judith and eliminating her before she reaches her target.
Lammeck has spent years teaching the theory of assassin psychology. Now, called back into the field against his will, he realizes he is in way over his head. As the distance between him and his quarry narrows, Lammeck finds himself entering the assassin’s mind. No longer motivated by the desire to help his country, the professor is drawn forward by the allure and enigma of his brilliant adversary.
Robbins’ novel is not simply an action-packed thriller. His alternate history is filled to bursting with historical detail, set against the complex backdrop of the 1940s social climate. Industry, war, racism, and sexism writhe in the background, complicating an already intriguing plot. Robbins also devotes considerable energy to developing the character of his assassin, lest she be seen as a “faceless” enemy. Along with Lammeck, the reader comes to understand the motivations and history of the assassin, the challenges she faces, the depth of her resolve, and the reason that she is determined to succeed in her objective, against all odds.
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