The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
Publication: 1997 (paperback), Phoenix House
Page Count: 216
My Rating: Intellectual Read
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was widely acclaimed after it was included on Oprah’s Book Club, and again found success in the form of several Academy Award nominations in 2008 after being adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet.
Michael Berg, a 15 year old German boy living in post-WW2 Germany, begins a highly sexual affair with a 36 year old woman, Hanna. After months of this torrid affair, Hanna suddenly disappears with no warning or explanation.
Years later and now a budding law student, Michael attends a legal seminar where his Professor assigns students to take word-by-word records of trial proceedings for Nazi war crimes. Unexpectedly, Hanna is a defendent in the trial that is being observed, and Michael realises that there is much to Hanna that he never knew…
My Thoughts
I loved this novel. It was completely different to anything I have read before, and approaches the context of post-WW2 Germany in a way that is not clichéd or stereotypical. While it isn’t a light-hearted read, the ideas that Bernhard Schlink explore evoke much thought and consideration.
Bernard Schlink is like an artist; he paints scenes and emotions in a way that not only forces his readers to consider uncomfortable notions and characters, but compels us to dive right in and comfront them face-on. The first section of The Reader is highly sexual and can be incredibly uncomfortable in places. Afterall, the relationship between Michael and Hanna is not a typical one given their ages, and the description of their sexual relationship pushes this uncomfortable feeling onto the reader. But as Bernhard Schlink skilfully paints his characters, by the conclusion of the novel the pairing is not as shocking as initially thought. This is a great talent, and I found myself smiling and enjoying the range of emotions Bernhard creates in his writing.
One of the ideas explores is the concepts of shame. We question post-WW2 Germany, and the concept of shame. Not only shame of those who committed atrocious acts, but those who tolerated them.
“My father did not want to talk about himself, but I knew he had lost his job as a university lecturer in philosophy for scheduling a lecture on Spinoza, and had got himself and us through the war as an editor for a house that published hiking maps and books. How did I decide that he too was under sentence of shame? But I did. We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.”

Personally, I have never read a novel that so clearly presents the concept of generational shame, and as such I found The Reader to be a wonderfully intellectual novel. I solidly recommend this novel to anyone looking for something different. It is not a challenging read and shouldn’t take very long to get through, but this is one that you will be thinking about for a long, long time.
Where Can You Get It?
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Loaded by Chris Tsiolkas

Loaded – Chris Tsiolkas
Publication: 1995 (paperback), Random House Australia
Page Count: 151
My Rating: Intellectual Read
“Speed is exhilaration. Speed is colours reflecting light with greater intensity. Speed, if it’s good, can take me higher than I can ever go, higher than my natural bodily chemicals can take me. […] On speed I feel macho, but not aggressive. I’m friendly to everyone. Speed evaporates fear. On speed I dance with my body and my soul. In this white powder they’ve distilled the essence of the Greek word kefi. Kefi is the urge to dance, to be with good friends, to open your arms to life. Straight, I can approximate kefi, but I am always conscious of fighting off boredom. Speed doesn’t let you get bored.”
The first novel by popular Australian author Chris Tsiolkas (author of proclaimed novel, The Slap), Loaded follows a night in the life of 19 year old Greek Australian, Ari. Throughout the course his evening out in Melbourne, Ari takes an overwhelming amount of drugs and has sex with a number of men, defining himself as homosexual but not gay. The novel moves with many flashbacks of thoughts and moments that define Ari, interweaving in a way that gives the reader a narrative version of a drug trip.
In 1998, Loaded was made into a film (titled Head On) which was met with varied response, mainly as a result of its graphic portrayal of homosexual sex.
My Thoughts
This is a novel that you will either love or hate. Unusually, I found most of Chris Tsiolkas’ characters highly unlikeable and the subjects of drugs, homosexuality, racism and cultural identity to be considered in a highly confronting manner. But while I certainly found it to be confronting, I must say I walked away nodding and thinking “Well played, Tsiolkas!”; he is certainly a skilled author who asks his reader to think about the realities within our society.
Reading this for a university class, I admired Tsiolkas’ skill in simultaneously disgusting the reader while compelling them to keep reading. On one level, this is an incredibly graphic, disturbing novel, but considering it within the context of our modern society it encourages an Australian audience to consider the complex make-up of our culture.
As typical to Tsiolkas’ novels, the consideration of cultures (predominantly the Greek culture) within the Australian landscape is thoroughly explored. Through the eyes of Ari, we question the cultural ties first-generation Australians have to the psyches of both the homeland and Australia. Ari doesn’t “fit in” with either the Australian “skip” culture or the Greek “wog” culture. He revels in his difference and loudly proclaims it. I thoroughly loved the novel for this thought; from my experience this is an issue many first-generation Australians face (although not neccessarily with the amount of animosity and hate that Ari experiences!).
Tsiolkas is brave in his detailed description of homosexual sex; this is not a topic widely considered in mainstream literature, after all. In the course of one evening, Ari has multiple anonymous sexual encounters, all described in haunting detail. This, combined with a chilling reflection of sodomy leaves the reader shocked, and works to show the underbelly within our culture. I think this is why it is so compelling; it is not shock-for-shock’s-sake, it is a purposeful and powerful consideration. But it must be said, in the wrong hands or with a different perspective, this novel could be considered a dirty, gross piece of work.
Drug use is also widely considered, and I must admit I wondered a number of times if Ari would still be standing by the end of the night given the amount of alcohol he drinks, coupled with the copious ingestion of drugs. Considering Ari’s evening is portrayed as a typical evening out, Tsiolkas made me consider today’s drug culture, and question how our society will ever progress.
Due to the illicitness of the themes Tsiolkas considers, I would only recommend Loaded to someone approaching it with an open mind. It is a stirring intellectual read and will certainly stay with you long after you finish it.
Where Can You Get It?
To buy Loaded for a great price and shipped straight to your door for free, follow this link to the Book Depository.

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