Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Getting Deeper into Zusak

Books Reviewed: Fighting Ruben Wolfe AND Getting the Girl, by Markus Zusak

In a few short weeks here, I'll be posting the list of my favorite books I read this year. There, you will most definitely be seeing Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the only book to make me sob like a baby since last July (when I read Gilead). Before his famous book about Nazis and death and the power of language (and a million other things), Zusak wrote three other teen novels that gave him a good name, albeit one that wasn't exactly a known. His first two books, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl, are about the Wolfe brothers in Australia. Cameron Wolfe, the younger brother, narrates both stories, often focusing on his relationship with his family, and in particular, his older brother Ruben, with whom he is very close.

It's always hard to read the early work of a writer with whom you've had a torrid and hot affair with over one great book. Nothing from the younger and usually less mature years is going to come close to the awesomeness you remember with longing. I'm already nostalgic for The Book Thief and I only read it six months ago. Therefore, it didn't surprise me that Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl left me feeling a little disappointed.

They aren't bad books by any means; they just don't have the grace and power of The Book Thief. However, combined they do take about a third of the reading time as that book. In the first book, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Cameron Wolfe describes the troubles of his family. His father is unemployed and depressed; his saintly mother works too hard; his sister Sarah is troubled and parties too much; his oldest brother Steve is successful and doesn't accept his family's problems. Cameron and Ruben, the brother to whom Cameron is basically attached, have somewhat embraced this "wrong side of the tracks" attitude, even though it's pretty defeatist. Cameron is sensitive and observant, Ruben charming and overly tough. They share everything, so when Ruben is invited to join an underground boxing ring, Cameron comes along, too. Fighting gives Ruben a purpose, but Cameron doesn't like seeing the way his brother has changed as a result. The book's last fifty pages are pretty predictable, with the brothers forced to fight each other, but Zusak handles it very well. That single fight scene, while a little overwrought at times, manages to be the best one in the book.

Zusak is a master of the big, important final thirty pages. He repeats this skill again in Getting the Girl. The book centers more on Cameron this time around, as he starts a sweet relationship with one of Ruben's ex-girlfriends. Cameron begins to become less of a loner and develops more self-confidence through this new relationship, and it colors his relationship with his family members. I actually enjoyed seeing the way the other Wolfes developed between Fighting Ruben Wolfe and this book. Their father is once again working, so the family in general is much happier. However, we see the way the relationships between Cameron and each of his siblings affect his life. Sarah helps to empower him, but Ruben works his best to bring Cameron down once he finds out about his ex dating his brother. In my favorite plot development, we get to see Cameron interact with his overly-ambitious brother Steve. The way Zusak plays out the story between Cameron and Steve works out wonderfully, managing to be ugly or beautiful in all the right places. It was a nice touch and added something more to the struggle between Ruben and Cameron. As I mentioned above, Zusak pulls this book's disparate storylines all together in the last thirty pages, where we see the power of familial love and personal strength in a horrible situation involving Ruben and Cameron.

Overall, neither of these books quite lived up to the greatness that was The Book Thief. Zusak's writing isn't as strong here, and the traps he managed to avoid by having the figure of Death as the narrator in The Book Thief fall wide open under the narration of Cameron in these two novels. The observations can be really unsubtle in certain moments, and the writing can swing between being too bare and being too precious. Plus, I have a hard time with lovesick narrators, and Cameron could really get on my nerves at times. I'm not sure which book I liked best of the two. Fighting Ruben Wolfe wasn't written as well, but it had a much more propulsive story. However, the moments between the Wolfe siblings in Getting the Girl really gave that book a power that Fighting didn't have. Overall, as teen novels, I'd recommend these books as a nice antidote to the Twilight-heavy world of the genre. But if you're going to read one Zusak book in your life, read The Book Thief. Don't even bother with these two.

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