Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: The Reader

The Reader
Bernhard Schlink
218 pages

Oprah Book Club® Selection, February 1999: Originally published in Switzerland, and gracefully translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, The Reader is a brief tale about sex, love, reading, and shame in postwar Germany. Michael Berg is 15 when he begins a long, obsessive affair with Hanna, an enigmatic older woman. He never learns very much about her, and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. But, to his horror, he does. Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany's Nazi past, and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: What should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust? "We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable.... Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose?"
The Reader, which won the Boston Book Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, wrestles with many more demons in its few, remarkably lucid pages. What does it mean to love those people--parents, grandparents, even lovers--who committed the worst atrocities the world has ever known? And is any atonement possible through literature? Schlink's prose is clean and pared down, stripped of unnecessary imagery, dialogue, and excess in any form. What remains is an austerely beautiful narrative of the attempt to breach the gap between Germany's pre- and postwar generations, between the guilty and the innocent, and between words and silence. --R. Ellis

My Thoughts:

Can I just say that it's a bit ironic that the music I was listening to while writing this review was two different songs named "Beautiful Disaster" (by Jon McLaughlin and Kelly Clarkson)?  I love putting my itunes on shuffle and seeing what comes up.  That's besides the point, but I did think it was fitting.  If I titled reviews, I might title this "A Beautiful Disaster."

When speaking about this book, I cannot say that I loved it.  I did not even really enjoy reading it, given the nature.  I picked it up due to it being on my list of 1001 Books to Read and the fact that there was a movie recently made from the book.  I have not seen the movie.  (Though I would be interested in what everybody else thought of it.)  But I have the same feelings about this book as I do the book Atonement.  I'm glad I read.  It was very well written and incredibly thought-provoking.  But I probably will never read it again.  I will think about it for days to come, and I can appreciate the incredible writing and the process by which the author brings to light many concepts and perspectives I had never thought about.  But it is not a book that I can read over and over again and enjoy.

However, I found The Reader incredibly thought-provoking and generally enlightening.  It was originally written in German, which I think made it seem more authentic.  The English translation is simple, without many descriptions, but very well translated.  The writing is generally thoughtful and philosophical.  Not so much a he said, she said, this happened type of writing.  But more focused on the thoughts and occurrences that were necessary to the plot.  It really read as if someone sat down and told a close friend this story.

I included the long description from Goodreads to help those who had never heard of the book.  I sort of knew the basis of the book, but I was still caught off guard.  But I was happy to find that the super creepy relationship wasn't the focus of the book.  In fact, in my opinion, the relationship between Hanna and Michael focused more on the emotional than the sexual.  The book deals with how that relationship affects Michael throughout his whole life.  He is drawn to Hanna, not because of her beauty or looks, but because of the connection between them.  So for those who are put off by that thought, it's not the main focus - and there is a lot to learn and think about once you get beyond it.

What I found so interesting from the book is the different perspectives of a post-war Germany that I had never thought of.  I did not even realize that Michael had grown up during the War until later, when he talks about the second generation as he is studying the Holocaust trials at the university.  He brings to light the attitudes of the children, who loved their parents, but could not imagine the actions that some did.  Do you hate those for the actions they committed?  Are you angry with the older generation for not stopping it, for taking part in it?  Do you blame them?

Schlink also shows the perspective of those involved in the war.  He shows how both sides were present in the post-war world, and how many people were simply swept up in the war.  During Hanna's trial, she even makes a statement like, "We were supposed to guard them; it was our job.  How could we not?  They would have escaped.  And we were supposed to guard them."  She asks a question of, "What would you have done?"  It's an interesting picture of those who were simply caught.  I don't mean it to say that everyone who was not Hitler was innocent.  I just think that there is so much more to comprehend than those looking from the outside in can understand.  The book provides an incredible thought-provoking take on the war.

After I wrote most of this review, I went back to a book club on Goodreads that I love (The Next Best Book Club).  They did a group reading of The Reader in 2009.  Though I did not read it with them then, it was interesting to read the different takes on the book.  There were just about as many different thoughts presented as possible.  I linked to the different discussions below, because I found many great thoughts about the book.  I liked the book, not as I was reading it, but afterward.   But I liked it for the perspectives that it provided.  And I think a good book is one that makes you think, one that you will remember for years to come.  So I gave this book a 4/5 because it was thought-provoking.  It covered subjects I had never read about before.  It introduced me to a different world.  Even though it was one of sadness and guilt, it was very present after the war (probably after every war that has taken place in history).  Because of the subject matter, I cannot recommend this book to everyone.  Read about it and see if you want to pick it up.  I can say that if you do, it will probably make you ponder it for a while.

Anyone else read The Reader?  I had trouble putting my thoughts into words about the book, and I spent almost a whole weekend just pondering it.  Any thoughts?

Goodreads The Next Best Book Club discussion (The Reader - Book, with spoilers)
Goodreads TNBBC discussion (The Reader - Book, without spoilers)
Goodreads TNBBC discussion (The Reader - Movie, with spoilers)

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