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Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

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War comes with a price.

Publisher: Phoenix (Orion)
Pages: 216
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-753-80470-4
First Published: 1995
Date Reviewed: 23rd August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway

At the age of fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman. Hanna entices him but he notes the distance she keeps between them, the way she avoids discussing her past. A few years later, whilst studying law, Michael sits in on the trial of several women who were guards in the SS. Amongst them is Hanna.

The Reader is a fantastic book. It’s compelling, informative, and quite moving, too.

Let’s start with the history the novel is based on: Schlink introduces the reader to the way war crimes of Germans were dealt with by the German courts. You get to see the views of the everyday people of their history and the characters run the gambit – people want justice, children dislike their parents even if the parents didn’t play a role (they dislike them for not fighting against the Nazis), and then you’ve Michael who doesn’t defend the war in any sense but looks at those who participated (via Hanna) in an objective light.

Of course whether or not it’s truly objective, so to speak, is down to the reader. Because the personality and personal history of Hanna is so intrinsic to who she is at the trial, and because of the affair, it could be inferred that Michael is biased towards her somewhat. He doesn’t believe she’s innocent – she’s not – but he looks at her in light of her choices, the reasons for them. (‘No, Hanna had not decided in favour of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and had fallen into a job as a guard.’) Schlink, through Michael, then, doesn’t just question Hanna’s involvement in the war, he questions her choices away from it. He questions her as a person, questions the decisions she makes. Hanna is all about honesty when it comes to the trial – whilst the other women lie, she simply affirms or denies. Michael sees in her behaviour someone who knows this is what should happen. Where personality is involved we see the affect illiteracy has on Hanna’s answers. Beyond all else, it seems to Michael, is Hanna’s worry of being exposed as illiterate. Keeping hidden her lack of education, in a place where being able to read and write was is, is more important than avoiding jail.

This is where the idea of ‘the reader’ takes to the stage; this book is about far more, literary-wise, than Michael’s reading aloud in the bedroom. Michael realises that far from making the noted weak women of the concentration camps become her slaves, Hanna’s assigning them to read to her is an attempt to make comfortable what little time they have left. Although she later learns to read and write, Hanna is very much a reader.

In the subtext there is a question: is Hanna selfish? She provides money for a survivor to give to charities – in her, Hanna’s, name. She takes Michael to bed though he is underage and she affectively on the run. She gets those bound for the gas chambers to read to her. Are these displays of selfish or unselfish behaviour?

Both Hanna and Michael take control. Hanna controls Michael in the bedroom – not literally, but in experience – and Michael later controls their contact when she’s in jail. Michael uses Hanna’s imprisonment to atone for his guilt but only so much – he records himself narrating fiction but never goes to visit her. He exploits the literal and emotional distance between them.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance… How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?

Michael liked the idea of Hanna and the teenage view of perfect love he had, he doesn’t want to spoil it; he doesn’t want to grow up, in fact – every woman he is with in his life is compared to Hanna. And he doesn’t want to face what’s happened. When Hanna leaves Michael, the reader will note she’s (finally) doing the right thing by him, taking her past with her, letting him be a child again and not rolled up in the affects of war, but of course he doesn’t see that himself.

This book isn’t atoning for involvement; it is the case that it shows how people could be pulled in – by the promise of more pay, for example – because as we know that’s a lot of what it was. We can compare Schlink’s writing of the events of WWII with Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française: Némirovsky wrote of the war whilst she was living it as a person of Jewish heritage hiding from the Nazis. Both Schlink and Némirovsky show the human side of the Nazi party, or, rather, the human side to those who were at the bottom, the low-ranking soldiers who did what they were told to do, or at the very least did what they felt they had to do. Of course in Némirovsky’s case this is more profound, she’s giving a voice to fictional versions of the people who were hunting her down as she wrote, but both Némirovsky and Schlink write in such a way that asks for thought, does not suggest forgiveness nor ask for it.

It’s almost too obvious to state, but there is a lot of information about Auschwitz in The Reader, and about the role of women in the SS. The books ends in a way you may feel it ‘ought’ whilst showing there are far more reasons behind it than the ones on the surface.

A brief word on the writing – beautiful. Simple, to the point, and full of sub-textual imagery. The words may technically be Janeway’s but Schlink’s prose seeps through.

The Reader is a book of great magnitude. The potential for impact is high, the content hard to read but invaluable, the journey sad but necessary. It is a book for everyone.

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Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society

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Turnips, books, and occupation.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 238
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-408-81026-2
First Published: 29th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2015
Rating: 5/5

Juliet is stuck. Her last book did well but she’s having trouble finding a new topic to write about. She begins to receive letters from a man in Guernsey who bought a book she’d sold to a second-hand shop. Dawsey introduces her to his life and friends, the story of their makeshift book club, and wartime Guernsey. It’s hers for the taking.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a wonderful little book that has earned its place in every bookshop. (Is there a reader who hasn’t encountered it somewhere?) Jolly, fun, but balanced by the solemnity of World War II, it provides both a great escape and an excellent history lesson about a place mainland classes forget.

The book is told through letters, telegrams, and a couple of diary entries. The correspondents are many but it’s not difficult to keep track of who’s who – the only reason you’ll fail is if you worry about it. The authors have given each character a unique voice and personalities shine through the text. You will know these people extremely well by the time you’ve finished. You’ll know more about them than you would if the book had been told in usual prose. The writers are open, unrestricted as they are by thoughts of anyone else reading the letters than their intended (fictional) friend. Given the nature of letters between friends, the book is not bogged down by detail. You form your image of the characters naturally, without the usual ‘my hair is… my eyes are…’ and it takes the pressure off; you never have to wonder if you’re picturing them correctly.

This is a story within a story. It’s about the composition of a potential new work of fiction or non-fiction inside a larger tale. It’s as much about Guernsey as Juliet’s personal journey through life, about the beginnings of a new way of life, and like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it’s also about someone who is no longer there (though for entirely different reasons). You get the wishes, the relationships, and the mundane day-to-day. The troubles, the fun, the history.

And history is inevitably important to this book. Shaffer (for we can assume it’s her1) spends a lot of time on the German occupation of Guernsey, ensuring the fiction she writes weaves around it convincingly. She shows the hard times, the evacuations, the punishments, the food scarcity, but she also shows the humanity of the German officers, reminding her readers that there was a fair amount of ease, some respect between the occupied and occupiers. The name of the book, quirky as it is, links into the rationing and shows people trying to make the best of a bad situation.

So, not surprisingly, this is also a book about books. Books bring Juliet and the islanders together and there are explorations of reading groups and passages and, on a general scale, what reading means, the place it has in our lives. Literature carries the story along.

In truth any review I wrote could not do this book justice. It is hard to put into words how great an experience it is. If the characters see Guernsey as home, see those who arrive as coming home, then reading the story is like coming home. You are welcomed with open arms. The characters could be real, the authors the fictional people.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is exquisite. It’s an escape, it’s a laugh, it’s a lesson. There’s a reason it’s everywhere and has been for some time. Let yourself be drawn to the characters, let them whisk you to their post-war Guernsey.

1 Shaffer wrote the majority – Barrows, her niece, took over when her aunt was too ill to carry on.

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Raymond Jean – Reader For Hire

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Hiring power.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 160
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67022-9
First Published: 1986 in French; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 8th June 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Lectrice (The Reader)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Marie-Constance has a nice speaking voice. She puts an advert in the paper, offering her services as a reader. She takes on her first three clients: wheelchair user, Eric, a 14 year old coddled by his mother; a widowed countess who may be old but will not be beaten; a managing director who wants to be able to impress at dinners but has no time to read. And it seems these people need her and need books more than she expected.

Reader For Hire is an exploratory novella that looks at the power of people in the context of the power of books, of reading. Open to interpretation, it offers a simple character-driven narrative and plenty of pleasurable reading moments.

There are many elements to this book. One: it’s a book about book. The chapters are full of quotations, mini analysis and odes to reading. Marie-Constance favours classics but there are other sorts of work. Make no mistake, you’ll be adding titles to your wishlist.

The biggest, or strongest, element, is power. The power of reading, what it can do and make you feel, how it expands the mind and can inform an opinion (that may lead to action). Be it Marie-Constance’s voice and manner of delivery or simple just the text, the books have an impact on the listeners. One ends up in hospital, another supporting a strike, and there’s the almost inevitable person who hires Marie-Constance but is more interested in the bedroom. (On this subject Jean asks us to consider further – is it stereotypical perversion or is it specifically to do with the reading?) The readings open minds. It gives the listeners a small voice where they’ve not had one for a while.

It could be said that Marie-Constance is the one with the power. She tends to choose the texts, and she chooses how to deliver them. It’s her presence in her listeners’ lives that changes them. And those who are listened to by society want to listen in return, to set reading on a literal stage and admire it.

It’s also her role as a reader that lands people in trouble. These troubles push her and in some cases her listeners, to re-think, to push a little harder for what they want – unconsciously. There is a place to interpret the book as being about subjugation. Listeners and Marie-Constance are pushed back. It seems that in educating themselves, thinking for themselves further than others may wish them to, they end up in trouble. Marie-Constance has to explain herself on various occasions – she’s just reading, isn’t she?

Reader For Hire asks you to enjoy reading but always question it, study its effect; to look at books and reading in a set few ways, to see the meaning in Marie-Constance herself.

At once simple and complex, this book about books is satisfactory in itself but will make you want to seek out others. By this time it’s likely Marie-Constance is booked until Christmas so it’s a good thing her story is available to all.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Mikhail Elizarov – The Librarian

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Taking fandom a little too far.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 408
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27027-0
First Published: 2007 in Russian; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Библиотекарь (Bibliotyekar) (Librarian)
Translated by: Andrew Bromfield

In the mid 1900s, a man called Gromov writes several books that don’t do particularly well and are thus forgotten. As time moves on, however, various readers start to find an inherent value in his work. They form ‘libraries’ of people and these libraries often fight to the death to obtain original copies (the only copies worth bothering about) and supremacy. Alexei finds himself in this world; due to his uncle’s death he was looking to sell an apartment and was accosted by these ‘readers’. They want him to be their leader.

The Librarian is a somewhat ambiguous book that looks at obsession, power, and the Soviet Union in a darkly humorous satirical manner. Heavy on gore and strict in its dealings, the content presents a rather unique premise to study.

Elizarov takes the basic idea of literary interest and runs with it. The ‘readers’, as they call themselves, are in essence fans who have taken their loyalty too far. Elizarov essentially looks at the way people find meaning in books and heightens the effect, giving the books power to change readers’ lives. Of course there is always the unanswered question: did Gromov know about this effect? (And did he plan the effect to happen?) This is cause for some of the humour because Elizarov provides extracts from the texts for your perusal and these extracts are undeniably dull. Whilst it is never studied, there is reason to believe that Gromov’s work is truly mundane to the extent that it means Elizarov’s characters are stereotypical fanboys and fangirls. Essentially, we’re looking at the extremely dedicated side of fandom here, the people who find meanings no one else would, and whilst Elizarov isn’t laughing at this concept itself, the way it is placed on those of older generations makes it easier to accept.

So, whether ‘true’ or not, these people are finding power in Gromov’s books. Regular people who work in factories; mothers and daughters; old ladies in nursing homes. The various books when read in one sitting with rapt attention instil inhuman strength, dominance of mind, incredible happiness, beautiful (if unreal) memories and so forth. A lot of the humour can be found in the first section of the book, which reads like a factual report and details the sudden coming to power of a group of elderly women who break through the ward doors, kill all the staff, and take over the building.

This book is very, very violent. Elizarov doesn’t shy from the details, presenting battles in all their graphic detail. And much of the book is about battles, which means it can be hard going. This said, it’s difficult to become numbed to the violence here, as it can be in other books (The Hunger Games comes to mind). You may find it repetitive after a while, but the battles are all as horrific as the first and you never get used to it.

There is a lot of commentary here about the Soviet Union. I can’t pretend to know a lot about this slice of history and it’s fair to say you may feel as though you’ve missed something if it’s not a period you’re particularly familiar with, however considering everything I’ve said above it should be noted that there is enough to ‘get’ in this book that doesn’t depend on knowledge. The basic ideas are obvious and aspects like false memories can be viewed as possible propaganda.

In view of knowledge, however, the writing must be examined. Be it due to the original prose or simply the decisions of the translator, The Librarian is rather dry. It can be difficult to read and unfortunately the eloquence and rather exceptional language doesn’t help. It’s fair to say some of the points and subtlety are lost in the words and where the plot is composed mainly of battles this is more prominent than it could have been otherwise. There is also the fact that many of the characters are referred to by both their full names (and patronymic) and a pet name, and then also a ‘comrade’ name and additional pet names; it’s more confusing than your average Russian novel may be. This, coupled with the constant usage of full names and a basic lack of characterisation (this is very much a plot/meaning-driven novel) takes the issue further. The translation comes with a great many proofreading errors, enough that it does impact the reading.

The book changes its focus towards the end, and this is where most of the ambiguity kicks in. There are a fair number of possibilities but you may still be surprised where it ends up. It could be argued that it finishes without finishing, forever loitering on the borders of an ending, however this is part of the point and something to take heed of when you come to sort through your thoughts. Much can be said: should we consider Alexei the author of the book? Have Alexei’s dreams come true, albeit in a roundabout way? What is Elizarov suggesting by the intimation that all these books can be read one after the other?

The Librarian is an exceptional example of hidden meanings and messages; making the reader work it out doesn’t get much stronger than this. It is dull, writing wise, and it is graphic, and it is absolutely, incredibly, bonkers, but it is also a very good book.

Unique and fascinating, be careful not to let yourself be too enthralled by The Librarian; you never know how much the cost of such a love may be.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Adelle Waldman – The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P

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One of us is wrong, but is it her or me?

Publisher: William Heinemann
Pages: 207
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-434-02232-8
First Published: 16th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 19th February 2015
Rating: 5/5

Nathaniel Piven (Nate) is doing fairly well. He writes book reviews, freelances for various newspapers and magazines, and his book proposal has been accepted. Women-wise, he’s also doing well, at least as far as number is concerned. He doesn’t stay with any one person too long; it starts out well and they’re intelligent, attractive, fun, and so forth but after a few months he’s had enough. But that’s okay, isn’t it?

The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P is an extremely pleasurable literary experience. Whilst the official line is that it’s about the literary scene in New York – particularly Brooklyn – there are many interpretations and readings to be had.

“It’s hard not to feel irrelevant in a world where a book that does really well sells maybe a hundred thousand copies. Even the lamest television show about time travel or killer pets would be cancelled instantly if it did that badly.”

The book’s appeal is two-fold. It is half a character study, in which Waldman adeptly takes the reader back and forth between believing the women are at fault and believing Nate is at fault. Whilst Waldman doesn’t exactly hide her thoughts and main points, whether or not the conclusion will have you feeling more for, say, Elisa and Hannah, than Nate, is never quite certain. The other half of the appeal is that this is a book about books – about books, about writing, about the writing and publishing industries, about the people who write articles for a living. Reading the book you may well have that euphoric feeling that I think it’s safe to say everyone reading this review is versed in, simply because you like reading. That feeling that accompanies discussing books that is perhaps stronger and more wonderful for the very fact that, let’s face it, it can be a rare occurrence – be it the discussion of books in general terms (“I liked such and such”) or the more involved debate or conversation of themes and styles. Yet, this said, at the same time the literary conversation between a group almost completely composed of privileged middle-class white people can be difficult to read – and it’s difficult because of the privilege and importance, the smugness they don’t realise they own. As far as reading the book is concerned, it’s often a heavy mix of delight in the subjects discussed, and unease because you know about the rest of the world ‘outside’ (Nate loves to ponder upon the less-privileged, which he does in a quasi-intellectual, distant and affectedly caring way).

Waldman’s writing itself is an interesting beast. It becomes evident early on that Waldman just ‘gets it’: the way you meet someone whom you instantly click with, a person who seems to understand that certain aspect of your personality or interests that no one else ever has, this is the way it feels to read Waldman’s words. It’s not that her subject will resonate with you, rather it’s the way she addresses you as the reader, is intimate and devoid of secrets. It’s the way she delves into detail, the way she narrates. In literal terms, the book is one long exercise in ‘telling’ – in what writers are told to stay away from and readers appreciate not having to read; however Waldman has written what is essentially an account, a third-person past tense story of what happened, and she’s successfully managed to get around the issues of over-detailing and info-dump. The style has allowed her to get right into Nate’s head and give the reader an exact idea of what he’s like; she gives you his inner life. In sum, Waldman has stimulated the effect of first-person narrative despite the limited amount of dialogue and Nate never addressing the reader himself.

The writing style is a bit of a mash-up. It’s not completely literary but it’s not casual or easy either. Waldman favours lesser-used words, long descriptions that you may have to read twice simply because she’s packed her sentences with so-called highbrow terms – this even though it’s likely you’ll know the meaning of the words without looking them up (at least in most cases). Following such highbrow sentences will be a sentence which uses very modern slang. Literary fiction meets ‘at her place where they had chips and guac’.

What’s interesting is that whilst on the surface this writing is incredibly pretentious, that’s both not quite the case and quite the idea. Due to the overall feel of the book it’s hard to say the language is flowery, really. Waldman is highbrow without being highbrow – she makes intellectual and affected language assessable, whilst remaining consciously, pointedly, pretentious.

There is very little plot in this book; it’s all about character – a study of relationships, a what-we-do-and-how-and-why-it-affects-us study. All the characters could easily be exchanged with others and it wouldn’t alter the book because the point is the overriding factor, rather than the people. (Although, this said, you will undoubtedly find yourself feeling sympathy for someone in the bunch and whilst Waldman may spend more time on a particular character you’re ‘able’ to focus on another.) Nate himself could be switched and it wouldn’t matter.

The title is both alluring and mundane. That Nathaniel isn’t afforded a surname is both off-putting in a ‘who cares, he could be anyone’ way, and intriguing for that very reason. One could speculate that Waldman has used the censoring method of Victorian writers and opted for something that could be swapped for something, someone else (it’s interesting to note that Waldman lives in the factual version of her fictional world).

Given the literary, bookish, content of the book, it’s not going to surprise you when I say that references abound. Be wary of the last fifth if you’ve not read Middlemarch as there are minor spoilers. Bask in the paragraph about Nabokov and enjoy the points about less literary works being good reads, too. However, the point I wish to make in this literary regard is something that is more subtle yet, as far as I am concerned, there for the taking. The nod to Gone With The Wind:

He was too tired to think about this right now. He’d think about it when his head was clear. Tomorrow. Later.

The idea of leaving thoughts until tomorrow occurs twice, and this second mention is accompanied by the Scarlett-esque thought that perhaps Nate’s book is the most important thing to him.

Somewhat related to comparisons is the following:

He told her about his book, the way it had evolved in the years he’d spent working on it. He’d first intended to write a scathing critique of the suburbs, featuring an immigrant family with one child. A Son. This son was intended to be the book’s central character, from whose lips precocious wit and wisdom would flow and whose struggles – girls and popularity – would arouse readers’ sympathy. He told her how the novel had started to come together only when his “insufferable” character had been shunted to the sidelines.

If you like the sound of that, even just a little, it’s fair to say bets could be placed on this book-proposal-within-a-book being Waldman’s novel itself.

The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P is first-rate. It has everything to make the avid reader swoon with reader love, it has a writing style to get excited about for various reasons, and it never meanders from the points it is trying to make, points that are worth reading.

If you’ve been wondering about it, you shouldn’t wait any longer, and if you’ve not encountered it previously, you should look into it now that you have. Just don’t expect it to last long, because like Nate’s relationships, it’s fairly short.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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