Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I admit that the premise for this book made me a little queasy. I'm no prude, but as the mother of two sons, I didn't know if I'd like reading about a relationship between a 15-year old boy and a 30-something year old woman. However, I wanted to see the movie and I always like to read the book first. So, I read it, and I'm so glad I did. It's one of those books that hooked me from the first and forced me to keep reading. My only regret is that this wasn't a book group book. I really would have liked to be able to discuss this book with others. There's so much about the book that lends itself to discussion. Of course, above everything else there is the moral quandary of this relationship between Michael and Hannah. The story is told completely from Michael's point of view. I found myself wanting to hear more from Hannah. I wanted her to explain herself and her actions. I know the author did all of this for a reason, but I really wanted to try and understand her. She made such a huge impact on Michael's entire life. She colored every relationship he had from that point on.

The reader pretty much knows from the beginning that she has a secret. She doesn't want to share anything with Michael. He's young and in love and wants to know everything about her. She ignores most of his questions and never really opens up to him. In fact, he doesn't even know her name until they had already slept together numerous times. Of course, later the reader understand more about why she doesn't share much about her past. For Michael, the romance is extremely intense and ends abruptly. Hannah simply leaves and never contacts him again. By chance, Michael ends up finding out what has happened to Hannah through a seminar class he's taking in college.

The title of the book comes from the fact that eventually their afternoon trysts included him reading aloud to her. In the beginning, he read to her whatever he was reading at the time. She seemed to crave this. She was always very attentive and perceptive. She would make observations and ask lots of questions. This continued throughout their relationship.

I really don't want to say too much more about the plot. I will just say that I really enjoyed this book, and it is definitely one that will make you think about it long after you turn that last page. The book really left me with more questions than answers. Again, I wanted to know more about Hannah and why she made the decisions she did. The reader is led to believe that one thing may have lead her to some of her decisions. But, it doesn't explain everything. Can you ever really fully know a person if they aren't willing to open themselves up to you? Are people who do evil things evil themselves? Does following orders relieve someone of personal responsibility?

If you haven't read this one, I highly recommend it. It's not a happy, feel good kind of book. It's a book that really stops you in your tracks and forces you to think about difficult philosophical questions. I'm anxious to see the movie now.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Playing Catch Up

I'm currently reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for the Chunkster Challenge. I'm only a couple chapters into it so far. I'll admit that I was a little surprised at the chapter told from the dog's point of view. I usually don't have any problem with the surreal or magical realism in books, but for some reason this didn't really work as well for me. Don't get me wrong, I do like the writing. I just hope that the majority of the book anyway is told from a human perspective. A coworker told me to stick with it that it is worth it.

I've finished a couple books that I haven't reviewed yet. One is Grendel by John Gardner. I recently read Beowulf and loved it. So, I thought I would read this while Beowulf was still fresh in my mind. Grendel is the monster from Beowulf, and this is his side of the story. I was really disappointed in this one. I usually stop reading a book after about 50 pages if I don't like it. This one is really short and I was still kind of on the fence at that point so I continued. But, it never got any better. It was actually kind of hard to understand at times. Believe it or not, there's a lot of deep philosophical stuff in the book. I just really didn't like it all that much.

I also finished The Reader, which I liked much better. I'll do a proper review of it on Monday. Hopefully, I'll be further along with Edgar by Monday, as well. I'm not sure how much time I'll have over the weekend because I'll be getting ready for my son's 21st birthday party on the 24th. Since they've gotten older, we usually just go out to dinner with all of our family and have cake and presents. This year, he wants to do it at our house, which means I have a whole lot of cleaning and cooking to do! I can't believe he'll actually be 21, but he's still my baby. :)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book Love

I had a great Valentine's Day even though my hubby had to work until 7:30 PM. I called in a take out at a steak house and we ate at home since it would have been very crowded by that time of the evening on Valentine's Day. My wonderful husband bought me a gorgeous pink ornamental lily that can be planted after it warms up a little. It is just full of blooms. He also bought me two books that I've been wanting -- The Good Thief and The Reader. I 've been wanting to see The Reader at the movies, but I wanted to read the book first. I should have taken a picture, but you all know I'm really bad at that. I love seeing everyone's lovely book stacks, but I never seem to get around to taking any photos of mine. With my lovely new acquisitions, I've put The Story of Edgar Sawtelle aside for now and started The Reader. I'm only a couple chapters in, but so far I'm liking it (even though the subject matter is a little disturbing).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

I read this book for one of my book clubs that meets tonight. I'm anxious to see how the discussion will go. It's a YA novel, and I read it in just a couple of sittings. There's also a movie, but I haven't seen it. It's about two 9 year old boys who quite literally find themselves on opposite sides of a fence and neither knows what it all means. Bruno is the son of a high-ranking Nazi official who is put in charge of "Out-With". Bruno is never able to pronounce the word correctly. Schmuel is a young boy from Poland who was taken to the concentration camp along with the rest of his family. The thing that makes this book different from other books I've read on the Holocaust is the fact that it is told from such a young and naive perspective. The boys form an unlikely and secret friendship by meeting along a remote area of the fence each afternoon.

The edition I read has an author interview in the back, which is pretty interesting. The author is asked why he calls this a fable. I had missed this designation on the title page, so I went back and there it was -- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Fable. A fable is basically a story which contains a moral. The author says that he wants to make this not simply about one concentration camp in one war. He wants the reader to be able to relate the story to any time period and any war. This is also why he never uses the word Auschwitz, but instead lets nine year old Bruno pronounce it Out-With. Bruno also calls Hitler the Fury instead of the Fuhrer. The moral is simple. Complacency is dangerous. Looking back, we all wonder how something like the Holocaust could have happened. Surely we would have spoken up or done something. The question we need to ask, and this is the message that Boyne is trying to get across, is what are we doing about the genocide that is taking place today?

There were a couple people who didn't read the book because of the subject matter. They felt it would be too disturbing. Those who did read it really enjoyed the book. I guess it's kind of strange to say you enjoyed a book which deals with such a terrible chapter in history, but you know what I mean. It is well-written and makes the reader think. For me, that's what good literature does. The only problem a couple people had with the book is that they felt that a nine year old would have been more aware of what was going on around him. I disagree. I think Bruno knew that something terrible was happening, but he didn't understand what it was. I've heard some people compare this to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. In that it is a book about a child's view of the Holocaust, I agree. However, I think the similarities end there. I think because this book is written in third person, I never really identified with Bruno quite as much as I did the characters in The Book Thief. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas deals with a horrific tragedy that possibly could have been prevented. Hopefully, we never forget this. I'll leave you with a line from the book that I think pretty much sums it up. "Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one."

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Room of One's Own (Mini Challenge # 6)

This book fulfills #6, 'borrow a library book' in the Year of Mini-Challenges. It actually fulfills several of the categories in this challenge because it is a 'new to me author' (I can't believe it either, but I haven't read anything by Virginia Woolf before now). It could also fill the 'read 2 essays from the same collection' because this book is based on two talks she gave in 1928. But, I'm only going to count it towards #6 because I have some other things in mind for these other categories, and I want to do all twelve mini-challenges separately.

I know this will definitely not be my last book by Virginia Woolf. I love her writing style. She is very witty while at the same time fleshing out a serious argument. Woolf was invited to speak to two British women's colleges in 1928 on the subject of women and fiction. She begins her talk by explaining that she has had quite a bit of difficulty preparing her remarks. She came to the conclusion that what she really wanted to explain is the fact that in order to write or be creative in any number of ways, it is crucial for a person to have freedom. She must be able to have a place to get away from the everyday interruptions and responsibilities of life and the money that provides that type of freedom. This is where the title of the book comes from -- a room of one's own.

She accomplishes her goal by fictitiously describing the two days that preceded her coming to this meeting. During these two days, she illustrates the myriad ways that women are 'kept in their place.' For example, she's walking outside when she forgets herself and mistakenly takes the path reserved only for the male scholars of the university. She has just had a brilliant idea when a male figure begins approaching her with his arms waving wildly. In the ensuing moments, she forgets the idea that was forming in her mind. She proceeds in this manner describing event after event in which women are treated differently than men, which in turn stymies the creativity of the women.

All sorts of questions are raised in her mind as she goes through these two days in preparation for her talk. "Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?" She seeks the answers to these questions in the British Museum by taking book after book off the shelf. What she soon discovers is that for most of recorded history, the majority of books were written by men, even the books about women. Then more women began to write and publish books in the mid to late 1800s -- George Eliot, the Brontes, Louisa May Alcott to name a few. However, she noticed something different in the writing of these women in comparison to the great male writers of the day. Even with their immense talent, she felt that they were at a disadvantage because they lacked the necessary freedom to write without restraint. She goes on to say that she believes that in another 100 years possibly women will be able to write without thought of gender like men have always had the luxury of doing.

There is absolutely no way I can do this book justice. Virginia Woolf makes a very compelling argument without bitterness or blame. She simply states the fact that to be able to be creative and write well, a person needs money and personal space -- something that women have lacked throughout history. Creativity needs freedom to be able to think and write without worrying about daily responsibilities or societal expectations. Woolf accomplishes her goal with candor and humor. As I said at the beginning of this long, winding post, I will definitely be reading more Virginia Woolf in the very near future.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


This is my first selection for the Year of Reading Dangerously challenge. I know I probably had to read this, or a portion of it, at some point during my time in school. However, I really don't remember reading it. I have always felt like I was not properly educated because I couldn't really say for sure if I'd read it or not. So, that's why I chose this one for this particular challenge.

Like everyone, I already knew the gist of the story -- great warrior king faces overwhelming odds numerous times and rules his country justly for many years until he is finally killed as an old man doing battle with a dragon that no other warrior would fight.

I read the 2001 Seamus Heany bilingual edition. I was actually pleasantly surprised. I really liked it and read it quickly. I guess it has just gotten a bad rap over the years like other classic works forced on students in school. But, this is a really well-written epic poem. Of course, I was reading the translation. The Old English on the other side of the page might as well have been Greek.

I particularly liked the introduction by Heaney in which he describes several possible ways of approaching Beowulf. The first he says is to simply look at it as "three agnons in the hero's life..." These are the three major battles he fights -- first against Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and finally the dragon. Another way to look at the epic, is to consider it the story of three groups of people and how their lives were intertwined through the character of Beowulf. The third way to approach the poem is to look at it as a study of the honor-bound warrior culture, which is also tinted with Christian references.

I really thought I would have a hard time understanding any of this, but again, I was pleasantly surprised. I had no trouble understanding the story. The only thing that was a little difficult was the pronunciation of the names and keeping all the lineages straight in my head. So, if like me, you haven't read it or don't remember reading it. Go ahead, it's not that scary or dangerous after all.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

This is my first read for the What's in a Name Challenge. I really didn't know that much about this book when I picked it up. It's been on my shelves for a while, and it fits the category of "a book with a profession in its title." From the brief blurb on the back of the book, I thought I would really love this one. However, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I did like it. There just wasn't as much about books as I thought there would be.

Two lifelong friends find themselves sent to a tiny village on a mountainside far away from their family and the life they knew in the city. This was part of the "reeducation" process of the Cultural Revolution. The children of famous doctors, scientists, and other academic types were taken from their homes and sent to live with peasants in the hopes that they would forget their bourgeois lifestyle and embrace the communist ideal.

The boys make an acquaintance in a neighboring village who is also a victim of the "reeducation" process. The boys suspect that he is harboring a dangerous secret and soon discover that he has contraband hidden in a suitcase. Yep, you guessed it -- he has books. All literature, especially western literature was banned during this period. The only approved reading material was books by Chairman Mao and his followers. The boys finally persuade their friend to let them borrow some books, which they devour. In addition to Balzac, they have books by Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and Romain Rolland. These books open the boys' eyes to a new world. Even though they had lived in the city, they were very naive and knew little of the ways of the world, especially when it came to women and sex.

Luo is smitten with the daughter of a tailor in one of the villages on the mountain and begins daily visits to read to her from Balzac. He is trying to impress her, and he also feels that he is doing her a favor by educating her, as well. They have a brief, albeit intense romance. I won't go into more detail here for fear of ruining the story. Overall, I liked the book, but I didn't love it the way I thought I would. I enjoyed learning a little more about the Chinese culture during this period in addition to the literary references. I'd be interested to know what you think if you've read it.