The Reader

the readerThis novel, “The Reader,” by Bernhard Schlink, has an incredible premise. A young man, Michael, learns about love from an older woman, Hanna,  in Germany, not long after WW II. The relationship lasts for perhaps a year, and one of the most interesting aspects in the relationship is how he reads to the woman. It becomes a constant part of their relationship and creates a unique bond. The woman eventually leaves town so the young man can be a young man, but they come in contact again in the most unexpected way. As a law student Michael sits in on a trial of war criminals, and there is Hanna, accused of a horrible crime as a Nazi guard.

I’ll avoid saying more in order to preserve the plot for readers, but clearly all the elements for a range of issues are in the author’s hand. How frustrating to see it fumbled in the creation of two characters who seem to lack depth. Hanna’s guarded appearance makes sense, since she has a past to hide and actions to live with. But Michael is a young student with a bright future, yet seems to float on the surface his entire life. His time in law school, his marriage, and his life after his divorce, are narrated by him as if he is an objective bystander. Nothing seems to touch him in life, except for a few paragraphs where he laments how his young daughter must feel after his divorce.

As the narrator, we have plenty of opportunity to get inside Michael’s head, but it is his heart we are missing. As a result, the book misses the mark when it could have been great. Seeing some of these same issues taken up by a different writer would be interesting, but the hope to be challenged in our thinking is not to be found in this novel. Note that many established critics like the book, and it was named in the list of books for the year by both the New York Times and the L.A. Times. It was also made into a feature film, which I have not seen. If the film captures the emotion that Schlink misses, it could be powerful.

Solaris

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It is not often I stray into the world of science fiction, but my oldest son challenged me with a classic text as a Christmas present. It was a pleasant stray.

Stanislaw Lem was a Polish writer, and Solaris, published in 1961, is considered by many (and I’m in no position to argue) a classic of science fiction.
The novel is centered around psychologist Kris Kelvin, an expert on the planet Solaris, who visits there to study the ocean which covers the planet. He arrives to find one of his colleagues has just killed himself, the remaining two are acting strangely, and unexpected visitors are arriving. The visitors, it turns out, are created from their memories. In Kelvin’s case, he suddenly finds himself spending time with his wife, who killed herself after they argued nearly 20 years before.
But where do these creatures come from? It is interesting to consider that you could switch their appearance to a devilish influence and you have a horror novel. Instead, Kelvin and the others think the Solaris ocean is creating them. The ocean is a living being, and they attempt to communicate with it. Are these resurrected beings meant to curse them? Are they gifts from the ocean?
Their attempts at communication are constantly frustrated, and from what others say about the book, Lem is commenting on inability of humans to communicate with non-humans. His philosophical forays lend support to this, but like much good science fiction I’ve read, the real skill is in looking at humanity from a new perspective.
What do these appearances say about us as people? The creatures are human in nearly every respect, but Kelvin can tell that this is not his wife. Even if we can replicate the cells of our body, will we create the same person? Most interesting (but not fully explored) is the creature’s growing awareness of its own existence. This creature, resembling his wife, Rheya, knows she is not who she thinks she is. She has no past, yet she has a memory. How and why did she appear suddenly on the space station? We see her struggle with her own identity, similar to how a human would, but for different reasons.
It is in the raising of these questions, without attempting to answer them all, that Lem’s novel works so well. He uses a science fiction premise to examine one of our most perplexing creatures — us.

Niagara Falls All Over Again

ImageElizabeth McCracken’s novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, is the complete package: strong plot, well developed characters, and several story lines which tie together well. There are so many ways in which this novel could have gone wrong, the fact that MckCracken pulls it off is a testament to her skill.

The novel is told to us by Moses Sharp, and Midwestern Jewish boy from a small town, who grows up to be the straight man in a highly successful comedy team. From his time on the vaudeville circuit, where he meets Rocky Carter, the driving force in his life, to his retirement from the entertainment business after making countless B-grade movies, we follow Moses throughout. Moses comes from a large family of sisters, but none dearer than Hattie, with whom he plans to go into show business. When that is no longer possible, he faces the choice of taking over his father’s clothing store (as expected), or heading out on his own.

He heads out and McCracken gives us a wonderful look at the vaudeville circuit as it was beginning to die. The hope and despair, the bizarre acts, the ability to improvise, and the dependence on each other, all show through. We follow Carter and Sharp, who resemble Laurel and Hardy in their descriptions (although they too are mentioned in the book), as they go to Hollywood and strike it rich. Professionally. Their personal lives are a different story and they take different directions, but to avoid giving away too much, I’ll leave you to the novel.

While are there are many elements of the book to praise, McCracken’s creation of Moses Sharp is the best. He is an intricately drawn person, especially tricky to do since he is the narrator. But he is an honest narrator and we see him for what he is — a good man with a not always good life and not always exemplary behavior. In other words, he is real.
I’ve praised McCracken’s novel, The Giant’s House, in another post. It is clear that she is a voice to not only read more of, but one we can watch for as she continues to create.