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Book Review: The Reader by Bernard Schlink

08/01/2010

It’s a simple plot really: young cougarific love. Young man, Michael Berg, meets older woman, Hanna Schmitz, who takes care of him when he is sick and then seduces him; an affair ensues in which Michael must read to Hanna before they can get it on. It gets complicated later: Michael finds out that Hanna, this woman of his dreams, the one no other woman can measure up to for the rest of his life, was a guard in a concentration camp and is now on trial for war crimes. 

The Reader reminded me so much that nobody is pure good or pure evil. It would be easy to hate Hanna, to judge her choices and put her in the evil category, but it’s not that simple. Her actions against the prisoners in the Nazi camp were reprehensible. But somehow I still felt sorry for her. Michael felt pity for her, but he also held a lot of guilt for his own love obsession with her. How could he have fallen for such a horrible person, he wonders. But in truth, she was a person who made bad choices, who let duty overtake compassion. 

I think that the characters in literature we love the best are the complicated ones, those who can’t always step up and do the right thing. We hope they will, we are riveted to the story in the hopes they might change. A character who is an alcoholic and can’t hold down a job, can’t support his family, and eventually orphans his children because the drink finally kills him, well, he sounds like a waste of energy and someone who we should not feel anything for, right? But I loved Johnny Nolan, and just like his daughter Francie, I want him to be the father and husband he should be every time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I wish he could have lived, and every time I cry when the flowers arrive at Francie’s graduation, sent from the grave by Johnny, who had the prescience to consider that he either would not be alive or would not have the money to buy the flowers that every girl traditionally received.  

Like Michael Berg, I’ve had this thought that to be kind to someone who has done horrible things is a break in some kind of moral code. It must be why we vilify people who make mistakes, especially if they are famous people who we have held up on a pedestal for years. We want a perfect person to look to for guidance, but we also know deep down that the person doesn’t exist. I am listening to a book on CD called Tripping the Prom Queen, the Truth About Women and Rivalry by Susan Shapiro Barash. The author says that women actually enjoy seeing other women fail. For example, she theorizes that we all loved it when Martha Stewart landed in prison because, damn it, she was so annoyingly perfect we all secretly hated her. Or maybe it’s just that we feel we were a bad judge of character, and we are angry with ourselves for liking or idolizing this obviously flawed person. 

I don’t know if I fall into this wanting-other-women-to-fail category, but I do know that I tend to think in absolutes, and so I have to work hard to accept that people are just struggling to do the right thing every day. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but they don’t need me making judgments on their choices. I’m not talking about big stuff like tax evasion, infidelity, and murder; I mean the little things. The coworker who needs to be the top dog and will find any means to do it, the friend who spends all of her money on movies and has nothing left to pay the bills. Who am I to judge their choices? I’m sure people can look on my life and mentally re-align the choices I should have made. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think about taking a page from Michael Jackson’s book, and you know, talk to the woman in the mirror. Not literally, because, I mean, damn, those lines around the woman in the mirror’s mouth are reaching Steven Tyler proportions. Oops, tangent. There might have been a point in there. Hey, it’s the magic eye blog, if you stare at it long enough a picture may emerge. Or you can just give it up and go get a Hot Dog on a Stick and an Orange Julius to wash it down and be done with it. 

Here is my favorite quote from The Reader: “The truth of what one says lies in what one does.” 

In other book news, I had an idea to run with one epic fiction and one epic non-fiction piece for the fall semester. So the fiction will be a re-read of Gone With the Wind, and the non-fiction will be A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I’m not sure if I can be so focused, and at some point I will get my hands on the third book in the Hunger Games Trilogy, Mockingjay. And then of course, everything stops while I consume that book. 

And here’s why I love to read Sarah Vowell (an excerpt from The Partly Cloudy Patriot): 

When I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes. Not only had they never been to New York, they had never been east of the Mississippi. Nor had they ever visited me. I’ve always had these fantasies about being in a normal family in which the parents come to town and their adult daughter spends their entire visit daydreaming of suicide. I’m here to tell you that dreams really do come true.

Going fishing today, believe it or not. Young son who does not like to be sticky or dirty may not love it, but I really like the opportunity to say to you, goin’ fishin.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nataie permalink
    08/02/2010 2:59 pm

    Oh my gosh! That sounds like a awesome book! I always enjoy your reviews because I know if you found it interesting then I can mutter through it! Cant wait now….I am off to the library to find it! Love ya!

    • 08/02/2010 3:02 pm

      I think you’ll like it. Really well written and introspective. I want to find more of his stuff now.

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