‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

I got a good deal on this book — $5 for a brand new, remaindered paperback with a pretty, minimalistic design from this lovely place. The Orion Publishing Group reissued twenty books with freshly designed covers to celebrate their 20th anniversary, so if you’re keen to have a set of classic, matching books, then you might check them out

The reader, close, bench

But onto the book. It was better than I expected, especially since I didn’t like the movie adaptation all that much, but still left me somewhat disappointed. I enjoyed part one the most, in which a 15-year-old German boy named Michael strikes up a sexually-charged relationship with Hanna Schmitz, several years his elder at age 36. Michael is slightly mature for his age; Hanna, energetic and capricious, so they make a good, if conflicted, match. It’s clear that Michael is narrating the story after several years of rumination and acquired wisdom, but the first section doesn’t have the pompous style that sometimes arises from past tense mode. As you can imagine, Michael is deeply affected after becoming severely enamored and involved with someone decades older, and lacks the experience to stand up to Hanna when she behaves unreasonably. However, despite the frenetic and fractured tone of their relationship, I still found myself rooting for Hanna and Michael. That alone, I think, marks a great accomplishment from Bernhard Schlink.

I was also surprised by how much I liked the writing style. The story is relayed in a direct and somewhat simple manner, with occasional, brief asides that enhance rather than detract from the main plot. One such aside is the observations Michael makes about his father’s demeanor towards his family:

Sometimes I had the feeling that all of us in his family were like pets to him. The dog you take for a walk, the cat you play with and that curls up in your lap, purring, to be stroked — you can be fond of them, you can even need them to a certain extent, and nonetheless the whole thing — buying pet food, cleaning up the cat box, and trips to the vet — is really too much. (p. 28)

I’ve seen a lot of people behave this way over the years, though I never found a way to articulate it. I think it’s especially risky for the primary provider of a family to unconsciously lapse into this kind of behaviour because of the close association between money and ownership in Western philosophy. Families are downgraded from social units to financial ones.

Bernhard Schlink is also quite good at capturing an adolescent boy’s perspective, which surprised me as I think that most people have a hard time remembering what it’s like to be young after a certain point. Michael is plagued the types of questions you’d expect to arise over the course of a complicated relationship characterized by a huge age difference between the two participants. But he also benefits from being sexually active with an older woman, especially in terms of confidence and bodily awareness. Although Michael raises and considers many important questions, he never overanalyzes or reaches concrete solutions.

The Reader, avocado tree

Then, for seemingly no reason, Hanna disappears near the end of part one. Michael is devastated, but eventually learns to live with himself — or so he thinks. He pushes thoughts of their relationship to a dark corner in his mind, earnestly trying to forget.

It wasn’t that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you? (p. 86)

As luck would have it, Michael’s decision to pursue a law degree means that he encounters Hanna again, seven years later, as a student observer in a courtroom. Thus begins part two of this three-act novel. It turns out that Hanna was a Nazi and responsible for hundreds of lives lost at the concentration camp where she worked as a guard and during the subsequent death march. Hanna is unusually truthful, unlike the other defendants on trial for the same crimes, and quickly becomes cast as the instigator. She is pegged as the author of a report that describes the guards’ criminal activities in detail — and this is when Michael, a silent, stunned spectator, suddenly realizes that Hanna is illiterate. During their relationship, Hanna would ask Michael to read to her, anything and everything. Michael is horrified when he learns that Hanna selected girls at the concentration camp to read to her in exchange for lighter workloads or other special treatments. Although it means she will receive a harsher sentence, Hanna is too proud to admit that she cannot read, and therefore could not have written the damning report. Michael grapples with whether he should inform the judge and affect Hanna’s fate, but ultimately decides not to.

While Hanna is on trial for her Nazi crimes, so is Michael, and, by extension, the rest of Germany. Bernhard Schlink’s treatment of the post-WWII guilt in Germany, the generational divide and incredulousness with which children regarded the crimes of their parents and elders, is superb. Reflected in the fractured relationship between the naive, 15-year-old Michael and the uneducated, proud, and reticent 36-year-old Hanna is a huge chunk of the country’s collective residual guilt from the Holocaust. Can Michael be held accountable for Hanna’s sins, even though he knew nothing of her former life? How could he possibly have loved, and still love, someone capable of such brutality? Michael visits the concentration camp in an effort to understand, but does not find enlightenment:

At first I was embarrassed to wander home through the Alsatian villages looking for a restaurant where I could have lunch. But my awkwardness was not the result of real feeling, but of thinking about the way one is supposed to feel after visiting a concentration camp. (p. 154)

These ambiguities comprise the bulk of part two of this novel. At the end of the trial, Hanna is unsurprisingly sentenced to life in prison, and Michael again tries in vain to forget her.

The Reader, leafy, bench

Part three is where the book gets significantly weaker. I wish it had ended after part two; I found it unrealistic that Michael would allow a year-long relationship from his youth to ruin him emotionally for the rest of his life. Bernhard Schlink developed an apt metaphor for Germany’s post-WWII guilt, but eventually stretched it too far. It was all summed up a little too neatly, a little too predictably, a little too tragically. After all, moral ambivalence was the strongest aspect of the book, so was it really necessary to recount everything so thoroughly until the bitter end?

On the whole, I still recommend this book, especially since I think it’s significantly better than most books that become hugely popular. It’s thoughtful and well-written, but not groundbreaking, and makes for a calm read on a rainy day. Isn’t that odd, a calm novel about the memory of the Holocaust? But there it is.

Overall rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: The Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan

If you’ve ever been troubled by Google’s seemingly omnipotent presence, its domination over the Internet, or just the sheer size of the behemoth company, then you might consider reading this book. I typically don’t go for nonfiction because I prefer arguments and ideals to be subtly embedded within a fictional framework, but overall, I am glad that I took the time to read it. DSC_2236 Although Siva Vaidhyanathan is Professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, The Googlization of Everything reads less like an academic text and more like a long-form article in Time. I say this largely because most of Vaidhyanathan’s arguments are on the superficial side; there are both merits and drawbacks to his more casual approach. I wouldn’t read The Googlization of Everything if you want a critical analysis of the way in which information itself has been re-defined in the digital age. Instead, I would consider this a primer on the history and founding of Google, as well as a broad overview of its business practices. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know a bit more about one of the most important companies in operation today. That caveat aside, Siva Vaidhyanathan has a refreshingly skeptical attitude toward Google. Most people I know don’t think twice about typing terms into the search box. Vaidhyanathan examines this uncritical attitude and reveals how the general public’s unquestioning acceptance of Google is made possible through the conceit of technofundamentalism. Technofundamentalism can be loosely defined as “the unquestioning embrace of all that technology has to offer, believing that it holds the answer to every problem” (source). Because of this almost mythological belief that technology is the key to human progress, everyone—from the U.S. government, to libraries, to consumers—has allowed Google’s growth to proceed virtually unchecked. Granted, some of Google’s intrusions have come with huge benefits, e.g. an ordered and searchable Internet. At the same time, Vaidhyanathan cautions us to be skeptical of Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” At the end of the day, Google is a corporation that is motivated by profits, growth, and the market, something that, as Vaidhyanathan emphasizes, is all too easy to forget. In my opinion, the most valuable argument that Vaidhyanathan makes has to do with the concept of “public failure.” The privileging of private, corporate, and individual interests over the common good has allowed several crucial public institutions in the United States to fail—from schools to libraries to the prison system. Basically, what happens is that taxpayers are unwilling to shoulder the justifiably substantial costs of running these institutions. Budgets are slashed, but the institutions are held to increasingly higher standards. When the institutions finally (and predictably) fail, the public declares their existence unsustainable.

Public failure…occurs not necessarily because the state is the inappropriate agent to solve a particular problem; it may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfunded, while expectations for its performance remain high…The public institutions that were supposed to provide services were prevented from doing so. Private actors filled the vacuum… In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions gives rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate. Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce the support for public institutions. The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice. (p. 41)

It was in this atmosphere that Google stepped in and took on the monumental task of making sense of the Internet. Should this have been handled by a private corporation? Was Google given more trust than it deserved? Should libraries have attempted to tackle the vast expanse of the Internet? Should there have been intergovernmental treaties? The point that Vaidhyanathan makes is that while Google might have been a viable contender in this conversation, the conversation never happened. Google declared its interest, and Google has dominated the interwebs ever since. Indeed, why should the government have bothered with designing a sophisticated search algorithm when a private corporation could do it efficiently and, seemingly, for free? The problem, as Vaidhyanathan emphasizes again and again, is that privacy, both collective and individual, is the price that must be paid in order to access all of that “free” information. Google tracks every search you conduct, records information about your search preferences, your political beliefs, where you live, and how much money you earn. People are (hopefully still) disgusted when they discover that the government is spying on them, yet don’t think twice about surrendering all of their personal information to a private company. Furthermore, as more and more information moves exclusively into the online domain, libraries and other public institutions no longer seem like necessary repositories of human knowledge. Why bother keeping the physical book when you can just scan it and put it online for everyone to read? Ignoring the tangle of copyright complications, of course.

The drawbacks of The Googlization of Everything are twofold. First, the book was published in 2011, meaning that it is simultaneously dated (several important court decisions have been handed down in the intervening years) as well as too little, too late. Conversations about the meaning of the Internet have circulated in academia since the technology’s inception—yet Vaidhyanathan doesn’t seem to acknowledge most of those conversations. Many of his reservations have been expressed elsewhere, time and time and time again, though perhaps not as comprehensively as in his book. Or perhaps I have misunderstood the issue. Perhaps there truly aren’t many academics who are concerned about Google’s omnipotence and the way the company both expands and curtails access to knowledge. It’s not a sector of academia that I am terribly familiar with, so perhaps the oversight is my own, not Vaidhyanathan’s. At any rate, Vadhyanathan began a conversation, but he didn’t conclude it.

Second, Vaidhyanathan is a victim of the very technofundamentalism that he decries. I got the sense that he was never able to entirely separate his respect for Google from his criticism of the company, which is a shame, as I think it prevented him from delving into deeper critiques. His first chapter, entitled “The Gospel of Google,” is an obvious allusion to Genesis and the creation of the world as we know it. This was undoubtedly a tongue-in-cheek decision, but it unwittingly revealed Vaidhyanathan’s perception of Google as a company of Biblical proportions. Technofundamentalism is the unquestioning, almost mythological, belief in technology, yes, but it’s also a broader form of myopia, in which people are unable to discuss technology in relation to the forces that shape its creation, distribution, and use. In other words, what is our contemporary, philosophical relationship with knowledge? How does this enable the concept of a “public failure?” How does the disconnect between individual privacy vs. individual consumption of “free” goods arise? What, besides apathy and inattention on behalf of the public, could explain Google’s meteoric ascent? I don’t believe that Vaidhyanathan provided satisfying answers to these questions, and perhaps that wasn’t the task he set out to fulfill with his book. Overall, I don’t think he wasn’t critical enough. That said, until Vaidhyanathan speculated as to what might happen to the billions, if not trillions, of webpages that Google has copied & stored as cached pages if the company were ever to be sold, or, even more improbably, go bankrupt, I have to admit that I had never, in my entire life, imagined a world without Google. I never thought, at any point, that Google would ever, could ever, cease to exist. This reveals my own status as a technofundamentalist. Google is like Standard Oil, the massive, horizontal oil company that dominated the United States from 1870 to 1911, until the Supreme Court ruled that it violated anti-trust laws. That was oil. This is the history and intellectual output of a huge swath of the human population, from the late 1990s onward. When Standard Oil failed, other oil companies stepped in. But which company, government, or nonprofit will be able to take on the role that Google has assumed? Nobody, including myself, likes to think about that. For further reading on the subject of technology, information, and how the Internet has changed ways of knowing, here is a series of three excellent articles that I recommend:

The Disconnectionists – By far the best article I’ve read about digital connectivity, the call to “unplug” from our devices, and the newly-created anxiety over whether we aren’t engaging in “real life” because we spend too much time browsing the Internet.

The Limits of the Digital Humanities – The author explains why technology, no matter how sophisticated, can’t ever replace critical analysis or contextualized research. 5 Things I Learned from Deactivating Facebook – A student explains how, contrary to popular belief, digital networks are inherently tied to physical networks, not a bastardized versions of them. Overall rating, The Googlization of Everything: 3.5/5 stars Photo credit: GvL

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or, the best book I’ve read in a long, long time

Oscar Wao

And by a long time, I mean in over 2 years.

Dios mío, but this is a fabulous book.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a multi-generational story about a cursed Dominican family. Haunted by fukú (“fuck you”), a nebulous malediction that tends to rear its head in the bloom of adolescence, Oscar, his sister Lola, their mother Hypatía Belicia Cabral (“Beli”), their great-aunt La Inca, and their grandfather Abelard Luis Cabral, are all driven miserable in love despite the later generations’ attempts to extinguish their ties to Santo Domingo.

This book was not what I expected.

It’s brilliant. It deserves every bit of praised lobbed its way, with academics stumbling over themselves to congratulate Junot Díaz on his debut novel. At times, it’s mirage-like, with tasty bits of magical realism leaping up from the page; other times, it’s direct and disgusting, a mini history lesson on the horrors of the Trujillo dictatorship that strangled the Dominican Republic for over 30 years. Part of me wishes I’d read it earlier, but you know what? I’m not sure I could have handled it. It was definitely beyond my capacity in high school, and it was probably too complex for freshman-year-of-college Alina, too.

The writing style is unlike any I’ve ever seen. It’s a gorgeous post-modern pastiche, chunks of ideas weaved together to form subliminal, unforgettable sentences. It’s a novel of today, a novel that’s exciting and explosive and written almost tumblr-style with multitudes of footnotes, legions of fantasy and sci-fi allusions, a contemporary Dominican Lord of the Rings, if you will, minus the dry middle-Earth prose.

But the story, shall we?


Oscar Wao, real name Oscar de León, his nickname a bastardization of “Oscar Wilde” whose strange 19th-century affectations he presumably shared, is the subject of the novel. Seemingly cursed from birth, Oscar’s girth explodes into something beyond cute childhood chubbiness around age 7. This overweight, combined with his nascent nerdi-ness, brands him an untouchable for the rest of his life.

Chief among Díaz’s accomplishments is his unforgiving exploration of the importance of sexuality in Dominican identity. The best women are bellezas, beauties; the best men, bachateros (playboys). Oscar’s swollen appearance, his lack of social capital, his persistent virginity, are all enormous sources of embarrassment not only to himself, but to his extended family and the whole of the Dominican-American community. He wallows in shame for the better part of the novel, but is nevertheless kind, gentle, and exceedingly well-spoken, his brief utterances shattering the deliberately casual tone of the rest of the novel, causing the reader to not only laugh out loud but to pity the poor fool who responds to the query “How are you?” by stating: I’m copacetic.

Oscar’s not the only one who fails in terms of sexuality. Though gorgeous, his older sister Lola is perpetually shamed by her well-endowed mother for not having a large enough chest:

You dread conversations with your mother. Those one-sided dressing-downs…Your mom’s convinced that if you eat more plátanos you will suddenly acquire her same extraordinary train-wrecking secondary sex characteristics…But for all your similarities, the tides of inheritance have yet to reach your chest. You have only the slightest hint of breast; from most angles you’re flat as a board and you’re thinking she’s going to order you to stop wearing bras again because they’re suffocating your potential breasts, discouraging them from popping out of you. (52)

As revenge, Lola chops off her long, luxurious hair, a surefire sexual transgression that further enrages her mother. In so doing, Lola attempts to reject the obsessiveness with which her culture classifies women and men, ranking each by hotness in circular, unforgiving cycles. It’s also a good reminder of just how powerful looks are, how great beauty can be a pathway out of poverty if you use it right, a genetic ticket propelling you to the top of the food chain.


Why, then, in dual countries equally obsessed with appearance, would a tale about a less-than-ordinary, obese dweeb be worthy of recounting?

We meet our narrator in chapter four.  A Dominican man with all the classic signs of success (handsome, gets tons of girls), Yunior is in love with Lola, and in a weird sort of extension, kind of in love with Oscar, too. Or at the very least, he becomes obsessed and saddened by the curse put upon the de León family, the relentless fukú placed on them by no less than the supernaturally evil, Sauron-like dictator Trujillo.

Perhaps because Oscar’s life was so unexceptional, so unfulfilled, Yunior feels compelled to share Oscar’s story lest it pass into history undocumented. It’s a tragic story; you should know that much from the title. You keep waiting for the poor slob to die, wondering when and how it’s going to happen, and whether it will be a deserving death or an ordinary one, quickly snuffed out by something as innocuous as a train, plane, or automobile. And you come to realize that the “wondrous” in the title is simultaneously ironic and sincere, that Oscar was a wonderful person even if his personhood was never fully realized. It’s the curse, the fukú, that eventually drives him to make the bravest decision in his short life, a decision that ends him.


But what else, what else?

Unlike many English/Spanish mixed-language books, Oscar Wao isn’t accompanied by a glossary. Suck it up, Díaz seems to say; either get with the motherfucking program and learn a few phrases in Spanish or accept that you’re just gonna lose half the meaning of some paragraphs. So, future readers, be warned: pull up SpanishDict on your smart phone, cuz the slang and profanity ain’t gonna be in the lily-white “dictionary” you got in Spanish class in high school. No way, hijo de puta. Don’t be a parigüaya. Look up that shit.

That last paragraph, if you were wondering, is pretty close in style to the way the book is written. It’s an explosive ride, alternately laced with profanity and an overly-collegiate vocabulary, that pulls you in like a vortex and spits you out at the end, wondering what the heck was that fantastic thing you just read. A tragicomedy in three Acts, a coming-of-age-in-America tale with roots in the Dominican Republic, a glorification and condemnation of beauty and sexuality, a tirelessly nuanced historical account of the atrocities under the DR’s homegrown Hitler, a magical, gleaming, and heartbreaking story about one huge nerd with a huge heart and a huge appetite: the book–nay, the spell–is all this and more, a feat of imagination that has everyone who’s read it grabbing at their heartstrings, for better or worse.

Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!


I’m keeping track of all the books I read in 2014 on this post. Oscar Wao is book #7  on the list, though I’m going slightly out of order. Photo credit: G. 

Book #1: The Ugly American

The Ugly American, 1958. By William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.
The Ugly American (1958) by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick

Again and again while reading this book I found myself flipping to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1958. How it is possible that something so pressing and relevant to contemporary America appeared over 50 years ago?

From 1958 to 2014, few things, it seems, have changed.

The Ugly American is a tale of American foreign policy gone wrong. It’s a series of vignettes about dumb and dumber statesmen who are propped up in relative luxury overseas, inadvertently causing massive harm to smaller and weaker countries. Its fictional, though based-on-real-life characters, can be neatly classified into two categories: those who are idiots, and those who are not.

Among the idiots are Joe Bing, a public relations man who manages to recruit all of the wrong type of people into duty overseas. He waxed lyrical about the “conditions” one can expect–a description that caused me to uncomfortably remember the 3 years I spent in Okinawa, Japan when I was a kid:

“Foreign affairs is a big business and it’s important business. You all know that. Now maybe I can tell you a few things about working abroad for Uncle Sammy that you won’t read in the handouts. After all, even when you’re doing big work and important work, you still have to relax, and I know you’d like to know about the informal side of living and working abroad…You’ll have to work among foreigners, but we don’t expect you to love ’em just because you work among ’em. I don’t care where you work for Uncle Sammy, you’ll be living with a gang of clean-cut Americans…You can buy the same food in Asia that you can in Peoria…When you live overseas it’s still on the high American standard.” (79-80).

So, how does this measure up to my experience as a 7-10 year old kid living on Kadena Air Force Base? Unfortunately, it’s pretty accurate. I spent probably 90% of my time on the base, interacting with “clean-cut” American kids and attending an international, all-English speaking school. I learned about a dozen phrases in Japanese; that’s it. My family shopped at the PX and the BX and the Commissary. The times we did venture off base–usually on the weekends to go to the beach–we considered the atmosphere “exotic” and treated each excursion like a vacation. Now, did living in Okinawa for 3 years change me as a person? To some extent, sure. But it definitely wasn’t the rich cultural immersion that it could have been.

Back to the idiots.

The bulk of The Ugly American is set in the fictional Southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan, a thinly-veiled allusion to Vietnam. The subject: America’s ineffective efforts to curb the spread of Russian Communism. But if the idea of reading Cold War propaganda makes you sick to your stomach, don’t worry: It’s less an indictment of Communism than it is of American stupidity. The book will make you groan and guffaw and wonder how we even managed to become a country in the first place.

But for each idiot the book presents, there is a well-meaning, hardworking, and intelligent foil. Homer Atkins, a.k.a. the Ugly American after whom the book takes its name, is an engineer fluent in Sarkhanese and determined to improve the lives of the people in the country through simple, effective technology. Atkins is, indeed, ugly in the conventional sense: he doesn’t dress well, his hands are perpetually dirty, and his manner of speaking is course rather than refined. This ugliness sets him apart in a world where appearance is considered more important than common sense:

‘”Dammit,’ said Homer Atkins to himself as he looked around the room at the fashionably dressed men. The princes of bureaucracy were the same all over the world. They sat in their freshly pressed clothes, ran their clean fingers over their smooth cheeks, smiled knowingly at one another, and asked engineers like Atkins silly questions.” (205)

Atkins’ ugliness is a metaphor for many things, including honesty, pragmatism, sincerity, and discernment. The bureaucrats described in the above paragraph are none of these things, but are nevertheless bestowed with more power than Atkins has. I’ve found myself in many situations where I feel I’m the only person in the room with anything genuine to say, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s experienced this. Especially when you can just watch a Ted Talk anytime, a pseudo-intellectual, self-congratulating phenomenon that never fails to make me feel nauseated.

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick were smart enough to write a book that pretty much anyone can understand. In terms of prose, it’s clear and precise, with few chances for misinterpretation. This helps to explain, no doubt, why it became a huge bestseller in the late 50s/early 60s and is  still a linchpin in many Political Science classrooms today. I dearly wish I had read this book in high school; not only would it have helped me enormously with debate — I could have started to cast off the mantle of the Western-centric, neoliberal, and semi-colonialist education that I received in the American public school system much, much earlier.

This book flies in the face of adages accepted as “common knowledge,” e.g., “You can’t fight an ideology.” I’ve heard that phrase used many times to explain America’s defeat in Vietnam and our long-winded sashay in the Middle East–“We can’t fight those guys; they fall prey to a dangerous ideology and after that they can’t be rescued.” Incidentally, in 1958 Lederer and Burdick demonstrated that this is a flimsy excuse. The fictional Father Finnian, again based on a real-life persona, cunningly crafts an effective stratagem against Communism in Burma.

After an exhaustive study of Communism, including reading the prophecies of Lenin, Stalin, Engels, and Marx, and becoming fluent in the local language, Father Finnian recruits 9 anti-Communist Burmese to devise a way to demonstrate to everyone else that Communism is not in their best interests. In the course of their conversations, Finnian and the Burmese demonstrate why Communism is inherently anti-Democratic:

“‘the Communists have made all worship impossible except the worship of Stalin, Lenin, Mao. In the areas the Communists control everyone must believe in one single thing: Communism…I too am a Catholic, but I do not require that all of us be Catholics. What this means, I think, is that the thing we want is a country where any man can worship any god he wishes; where he can live the way his heart says. That, I think, is the final big thing.” (55)

This conversation, however, is ironic in the wider context of The Ugly American.  Americans who travel abroad and insist on replicating American lifestyles in vastly different circumstances, who are convinced that traditional warfare will eventually surmount guerrilla tactics, who assert that large construction projects are more prestigious and more useful than small, everyday technological improvements, who interact only with other Americans and are incapable of detecting the disdain in which they are held by foreigners, and furthermore, who do all of this in the name of DEMOCRACY? Well, frankly, that’s idiocracy.

4.5/5 stars