Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Story of a marriage

Nick Dunne wakes with a start on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, and descends to the kitchen of his rented McMansion to find his wife, the now grown “Amazing Amy” of a children’s book series, making crepes. The homey scene fills him with dread. Later that day, Amy turns up missing. Suspicion falls on Nick, whose first person narration omits key elements of the truth.  The book’s chapters then alternate between Nick’s retelling of the events after Amy’s disappearance and Amy’s diary entries relating events up until her disappearance.

This blockbuster's dirty little secret is that it is actually a literary novel, a novel that works on many levels. Not only as a murder mystery, but also as a comedy, a commentary on the current state of American womanhood, a sociological comparison of urban and rural and a dissection of the institution of marriage. The story wastes no time getting started – the girl is gone within twenty-four pages. Quickly the reader realizes this couple is tragically mismatched. In addition, both Amy and Nick seem to be missing some basic human responses. Ingeniously, the stakes are raised, assisted by various well delineated characters, characters who also serve as plot mechanisms.

Amy is a great creation, entertainingly cold and very funny. The Amazing Amy books ended each chapter on a quiz. So Amy inserts the quizzes into her diary. The couple has an anniversary tradition – she hides clues all over town and it’s Nick’s job to figure them out. The clues are clever, murderous, like something out of Cosmopolitan. The ultimate question is what do women want? (Men apparently want to be left alone.) The prose is consistently entertaining and Flynn is a master of showing not telling. Near the end, however, an essential plot twist feels not quite motivated, a little too out of character. This book would certainly bear a rereading. It’s all about staying together for the sake of the children.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

A mysterious older woman is kind to a fifteen year old boy

One afternoon during the late 1950’s, German high school student Michael Berg vomits on his way home from school and is assisted by the no nonsense Hanna, a red headed woman in her thirties.  After he returns to her apartment to thank her, he glimpses, through an open door, her putting on her stockings. They begin an affair and she teaches him about sexual pleasure.  Together they take a secret bicycle vacation and she becomes irrationally angry when he slips out for coffee, leaving only a note.  One day Hanna vanishes and Michael continues with his life.   He marries and has a child, but realizes no woman can inspire the same passion he felt for Hanna. Then, as a law student, he is called to observe the trial of several Nazi guards accused of atrocities – Hanna is among them.

This book was short and sensuously written. I enjoyed reading about their youthful love affair. My problem was when after Michael starts observing the trial the reader realizes he is incredibly pompous and condescending. He suddenly divines that Hanna is illiterate which would ameliorate some of her guilt and allow her to put on a better defense. This plot twist felt gimmicky and annoying. He attempts to explain her illiteracy to the judge but Hanna has no interest in trying to ameliorate her guilt. She doesn’t think she is guilty at all. She was only doing what anyone else, any other German, would have done in that situation. If a group of women condemned to die are burning to death in a church, are the prison guards supposed to save them? What is also on trial is the cooperation of the German people with the inhumane Nazi regime. Hanna was just following orders. 
Afterwards, Michael feels guilty, troubled by her unwillingness to defend herself. He narrates some books into a tape recorder and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison. He doesn’t write or call, just regularly mails the tapes. Eighteen years later, the warden calls. Hanna is ready to be released – can Michael help? Michael goes to the prison. But Hanna is no longer his hot playmate, but a stout older lady who smells funny. She kills herself before release, and Michael travels to New York to discuss things with the lone surviver of the atrocity. The talk doesn't go well.

I'm not sure what the reader is supposed to feel at the end of the book. To feel sorry for Michael?  Who couldn't even visit poor Hanna in prison?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak


The Russian revolution tears a man’s life apart.

Yuri Zhivago is a child of turn-of-the-century Moscow bourgeois society. An orphan, he marries loyal Tonia, the daughter of his rich foster father. As a teenager,Yuri briefly encountered the beautiful troubled Lara, embroiled in conflicts with the older man who has ruined her virtue. Meanwhile, Russia is cracking under the weight of oppression. Years of terrible civil war rip the old world apart, and lead to violence and starvation across all social classes. The servants' children end on top and rich men’s children end on the bottom. That still doesn’t deter people from taking enjoyment in life. Yuri works at hospitals but then is dragooned into serving as a doctor for a Red Army unit hiding in the forest. He escapes and reunites with Lara for a short time in a wintry country house before he lives out the remainder of his shattered life.

The strengths of this book include an easily digestible history lesson about the Russian Civil War, numerous wonderfully poetic descriptions of snow and the taiga, the great Siberian forest, and a glimpse into the heads of people undergoing severe civil pressure. I liked how the characters remained the same and were still able to have fun, even as society fractured all around them. Dr. Zhivago definitely harkens back to War and Peace (although I think this book puts the lie to Tolstoy’s singing dancing peasants). The first third of the book is a chronicle of a society torn apart, starting with Cossacks whipping old ladies on the ass. Many scenes depict intelligent kind people being held hostage by homicidal morons, and make it apparent why the Soviets would feel nervous about publicizing this book. Lara has a compelling speech when she said that murder used to be something only seen on a stage or in a novel and now it is commonplace. The final part of the book is a love story. Yuri is torn between his love for his family, his self sacrificing wife, and his love for Lara.

At times Lara and Yuri feel that they must cherish not only their personal happiness but whatever they can remember of western civilization. They pity the children who know no other life. The horror at the end is concisely depicted.  The book is sort of uneven, a mishmash; the plotting is terrible, though perhaps that randomness corresponds to real life. In the middle of the Siberian tundra, Yuri keeps running into helpful characters from the old Moscow neighborhood. The Nazi invasion comes as a relief from the tyranny of suffocating totalitarianism. Marxian economic analysis may have some value but the forced implementation of a Marxist economy has been a disaster.