a book that's receiving tons of positive attention and that sounds rather like what I should love to read (or, perhaps more to the point, what I might like to write), I always have to look inside myself and suffer an unpleasant thought about stomach-turning envy and how much it might be affecting my opinion of what I'm reading. It's an unanswerable question, really, and it is not to my credit, that pang (I always feel it in the stomach) when someone says casually of their sister-in-law, for instance, "Oh, did you hear about her million-dollar two-book deal?" or of their latest favorite novel that it's shot up the Amazon charts.
So all this is a roundabout way of saying that regular blog-reader and young-adult author Lee Lowe (who has a new story up at her blog) asked me a month or two ago in the comments here if I had read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and if so what I thought of it; I had not, so I requested it from the library and took a look and it just did not catch my interest. (I had the attractive Australian large-format paperback edition, it's very beautifully designed and striking-looking but the text on the back cover felt vaguely coy and fable-like and I put it down without reading any of it.)
Most notably, the Australian edition is not marked in any way as young-adult fiction, but I saw something last week--I can't remember where--of the "you've got to read this fabulous new book, you might be put off by its being marketed for young adults but it's really the best book of 2006" kind of thing and of course immediately thought, "Oh, how much more appealing than I had imagined," having taken it more for a Marquez-or-Kundera-in-the-family-tree kind of adult fable which is not at all what I like.
The book is narrated by Death, and I was thinking idly before I started of how I was sure to be disappointed because of this Death not SPEAKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS (Hogfather was the first Discworld novel I read, and still one of my very favorites, Pratchett at his best and funniest). But then as it turned out I did start reading and I really, really didn't like the voice of Death the narrator.
Let me stop for a minute and say that Markus Zusak is immensely talented, a really remarkable storyteller (the main character Liesel Meminger is very well drawn, and her relationships with the principal male characters extremely convincing and moving), and I have no doubt that this book will not only sell a gazillion copies but also, ah, touch the hearts of millions and cause them to weep. But this is the problem. I can sum it up in two words: whimsy; sentimentality.
I have no tolerance for whimsy. Death's voice is almost arch, for god's sake! This is a personal obsession of mine and I am willing to admit it's somewhat unreasonable. But the sentimental orientation is more generally unacceptable, on grounds that I would describe as ethical. I was almost weeping at the end of the novel, even as I felt rage at having my emotions manipulated in this way.
The young-adult reading thing also remains a question for me. I don't know, this field of Holocaust literature is really not my subject at all (there are certainly some wonderful books particularly written by survivors or their children or people otherwise personally affected that I would not particularly put in the hands of a teenager), but I feel that from both a historical and a literary standpoint there are books that more closely match my sense of the ethical imperatives in the case. I'm not making a simple argument about historical accuracy or responsibility or whatever, I don't want to go there, just a claim about sentimentality and narrative bad faith.
For younger readers, then, I would rather give them something like one of Eva Ibbotson's books, if I thought they still needed a happy ending of sorts. But for the grade 10-12 readers that the American edition is being pitched to, there start being a lot of other choices on the grounds of subject matter and (what I really care about) of literary style that seem to do more and better work: a personal favorite of mine is the amazing memoir called The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction by my friend and neighbor David Weiss Halivni, and there is Primo Levi's remarkable book--surely this is his best book by far, I am quite in love with it... we must read all his others as well, but the straight-up memoirs are so bleak as to be almost unbearable--The Periodic Table. Or for the more intellectual/precocious teenager (is this totally inappropriate? I think I was sixteen when I read it, and it blew me away; but of course it is a very different sort of book from these others I have been listing, and a very great novel) The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which basically makes Zusak's novel look incredibly meretricious. Or even something like Schindler's List (the book is better than the movie), a novel with which this one has a great deal in common, I'd say, though it's years since I read it so my memory may have failed me.