The Dinner – Review

May 25, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch is… complicated.

Two couples meet for dinner at a restaurant in Amsterdam. What seems like a nice (or, at most, tedious) evening out slowly escalates as the meal progresses and tension bubbles up toward the surface. Every one knows that eventually the conversation will have to turn toward why they’ve gathered tonight — their children and the shocking event monopolizing media attention.

The Dinner does not explore good and evil, but delves into the morally ambiguous and then the (personally) repellant. The characters (particularly the people with whom I felt I was supposed to sympathize or identify) probe those grey areas surrounding what you would do for those you love.

Even before The Dinner takes a turn for the horrific, I found myself slightly appalled by these characters. Which is, of course, Koch’s intention. He’s sneaky that way. The narration lulls you into a false sense of normalcy and the revelations that everything is a bit twisted are small at first. By the end though, it’s all loops and hairpin turns and you might as well throw out your compass because every direction is south.

So, to reiterate: The Dinner is complicated. Koch has crafted this story masterfully and the result is provocative and bizarre and disturbing. I have lost count of how many times I’ve now said it here, but you don’t have to like the characters to like the book. My go-to example for that mantra has always been Salinger’s work, but that’s going out the window because this is what I’m talking about.

Just go read it. It may make you pull back in horror or decide you’re a very good person. At the very least it will make you think.

OtThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness, at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson chronicles the real events surrounding the World’s Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 — the challenges, and triumphs of the architectural team that brought the legendary fair to Chicago and the string of mysterious disappearances of women throughout the city.

the narrative that Larson weaves is spellbinding — it is fantastic and unimaginable, the way these two operations worked in the city. Larson includes a note at the beginning of the book: “However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction.”

Despite that note, I sometimes forgot while reading that these things happened. Larson is an amazing storyteller and even though I could have gone online and found out the details of the case, the book brought it to life and, oddly, kept me guessing. You just become invested in the story and the “good guys” and, morbidly, seeing what other horrors Holmes has committed.

This is an amazing portrait of an era and of these two men: Holmes and Burnham. If you’re a bit squeamish when it comes to crime and serial killers you should probably skip this one, but if you can watch a Criminal Minds marathon with the best of them you’ll probably be OK and I definitely recommend it.

The Good House by Ann Leary is well written and presents an interesting narrative. Throughout my reading, I really couldn’t decide how I felt about Hildy, the protagonist/narrator and I think that may have detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book.

She comes across as incredibly self-involved at times and is a very unreliable narrator, which was sometimes very frustrating and other times just plain perplexing. Her skewed perspective did, on occasion add to the suspense and drama though.

I think her inner turmoil played up against the idyllic Northeastern backdrop was interesting, but sometimes I couldn’t get over the “allow me to reveal the seedy underbelly of classic Northeastern life”-ness and the bitter, self pity in the narrator’s voice. Then again, I think that was often the point. We all have those thoughts and feelings, just maybe not to that extent.

Toward the end, I really wish that there had been more of an explanation about what happened with Rebecca. Or maybe I wish that Leary had taken it in a different direction? I actually feel this way about a few aspects of the book — things built into such a crescendo, and then just fizzled. I don’t know if I’d call them missed opportunities, but there were stories that were developing into something interesting, but then took a very mundane route.

I get the feeling that Leary was trying to portray a certain slice of human experience and wanted to stay on the side of authenticity and therefore ended up sacrificing some aspects of story lines that even some of her characters might have branded sensationalism. But some things in life are sensational. Some people are cray, others are mean-spirited or nice, and some people really can change. I’m curious what Leary set out to write and how it compares to The Good House.

I’m afraid it may not have come across in this review, but I actually did like this book. I think. I don’t think I liked many of the characters, but as I say almost every time I read a Salinger book, you don’t have to like the characters to like the book. Leary is an effective storyteller, and her writing (usually) transcends my dislike of the characters.

As I’ve said, my job has introduced me to a lot of new and great YA. It has also reignited my love of graphic novels and I get to see all of the cool ones.

Bad Machinery: The Case if the Team Spirit is the first column of a collection of John Allison’s web comic (of the same name) about a team of preteen sleuths. Need I say more?

There’s a group of three girls and another of three boys, a each working on their own thing, but they’re ultimately working toward the same goal.

The six of them are a lot of fun and have quite a wacky “cast of characters” to back them up.

Bad Machinery is a quick and very fun read, so go for it!

How Did You Get This Number is Sloane Crosley’s second collection of essays. As you may or may not recall, I was quite taken with her first collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake.

How Did You Get This Number has an amusing title, there’s a bear on the front cover… as you can imagine, my expectations were soaring. And, oh, how they crashed to the ground.

The book has its funny bits and its poignant moments, but mostly it just felt like a lot of self-indulgent prattling (and I say this while fully aware that I write a blog about “how I feel” about books and libraries and the city and whatnot). How Did You Get This Number just wasn’t relatable. That was so much a part of why I loved Crosley’s first collection and this one fell immeasurably short. It wasn’t relatable and it wasn’t funny. A collection of humorous essays should be funny, but this was just trying to be.

I’m getting myself kind of worked up thinking about this book again. I so loved her first collection and this second one was just so underwhelming (also- pet peeve: where’s the question mark?!) Maybe she can redeem herself with another, better collection.

I read about Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice on Book Riot. The reviewer was so moved by the book that she read it three times in rapid succession.

The title itself was enough to get me intrigued, but with an anecdote like that, how could I not want to read this book? It arrived at my local branch library pretty quickly and I dove right in.

I may not have had the exact same reading experience as the reviewer from Book Riot, but When Women Were Birds certainly had an effect on me. It is a powerful piece of writing. I often found myself having to wrench my attention away from the book to make sure I didn’t miss my subway stop. I had to run for the doors more than once.

I cannot pinpoint exactly why this book has resonated so deeply with me. Williams wrote it at a later point in her life than I am in mine, she writes of her experiences within the Mormon church (something with which I have absolutely no experience), and her family’s deep connection to nature and, in particular, birds. There is a strong bond between the women in her family, but that is the only aspect with which I strongly identify. Nevertheless, I found myself marking (with slips of paper, mind you) multiple pages and passages that I wanted to return to and copy out for reference.

I think that this book’s ability to affect me so strongly speaks volumes about Williams’s abilities as a writer. Just read the book. I’d love to hear how others feel about it.

I recently finished reading The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. This was a really interesting book. It had the narrative feel of a saga even though it’s under 300 pages.

Daisy Goodwill Flett is the narrator, using the stories of those around her and reflections of her own life to figure out her place in the world. I have to say the fact that Daisy is the narrator isn’t always entirely clear, and she is not always the most reliable of narrators. Even she admits this later in the story. And yet it doesn’t matter. This isn’t about what “really” happened. It’s about Daisy’s life and, more importantly, how she remembers and perceives it.

The Stone Diaries has a great narrative thread with interwoven characters and details that make it a phenomenal read.

Two YA Reviews

May 8, 2013

Since starting my job, I’ve been exposed to a lot more YA and children’s lit. Not all of it is fantastic, but some of it really is. As a result, my to-be-read list is growing at an alarming rate.

Anyway, I recently read OCD, the Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn. It’s the story of Danielle, a teenager attending an alternative high school who, for her senior year, is trying to find balance in her life between accepting who she is and getting others to like and accept her. It’s told through her journal entries, class writing assignments, emails, and postcards/letters.

To be honest, I wasn’t feeling this book at first. It was one of School Library Journal‘s starred books for April, so I had high expectations and at first I was feeling a little let down. I’m glad I stuck with it though, because I ended up really liking this book. It just takes a second to adjust to Danielle’s voice, but then the story takes hold.

I must say, I don’t think “the Dude” aspect really features enough to make it into the title. It’s a bit of a throwaway aspect, but then again, it’s a really good title.

This was a quick read. It was mostly fun, but it does deal with some deeper issues, as well as the oh-so-human experience of not fitting in. I definitely recommend it.

My other recent YA read was Venom by Fiona Paul. It’s the first book in what is, I think, a trilogy called the Secrets of the Eternal Rose. Venom is a little bit romance, a little bit mystery, and a little bit historical fiction. Also, it takes place in Venice.

Maybe it’s the title, but I was expecting there to be some sort of intrigue involving poison (also, I have another YA book that might have something to do with poison), so I was a little let down that poison didn’t figure in the story. Murder, on the other hand, figures prominently; so points for intrigue.

I find myself somewhat apathetic toward this book. It was OK, but the romance was stilted and awkward and the mystery got a bit convoluted at times. All the same, it was kind of a page turner. Perhaps it’s just my bizarre need to always know how things turn out.

There’s also my pet peeve concerning languages: if you’re going to include random phrases in another language, make sure they’re grammatically correct. It takes two seconds to look up the plural form of a feminine noun. Come on!

Overall, Venom was entertaining. I have enough other books on my list that I don’t think I’ll seek out the other books in the series, but they could very well be your cup of tea. Also, even with the romance and this book being set “back in the day,” Cassandra, the main character is a pretty decent female character when considered in the realm of YA. Yeah, she gets all sappy and a bit stupid when boys are concerned, but she’s a teenager. She’s also confident and can think on her own. She has a sense of decency and justice as well as an enduring (and endearing) streak of curiosity.

So those are my YA reviews for the nonce. Now go forth and read, my pretties!

I have been MIA for a while, but hey, it’s the end of the semester. I have finished a number of books and will review them… eventually.

My last class is Monday, and then I’m free. Until summer classes start. In any case, I’m eagerly awaiting the end of the semester. I see lots of reading in my future.

Anywho, in the recent days I have taken a turn for the domestic. Perhaps it’s the Spring Cleaning bug, or maybe I’m just using cleaning my apartment and cooking as modes of procrastination.

But seriously, this is the best procrastination ever. Now I have risotto. Risotto, people! Forget ambrosia, this is the food of the gods.

And now I will show you how I made it:

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One day I will master chopping onions into evenly-sized pieces. One day…

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Then you throw the onions and olive oil into a hot pan. Add some chopped garlic and some herbs (I used oregano and rosemary because that’s what I have in my pantry).

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Then throw in the arborio rice and mix it around so everything is coated with the oil.

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Stock time! I use vegetable stock, but I hear using beef broth gives a good flavor too, if you eat meat.

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Let the rice soak up the liquid, while stirring frequently. When you can pull the spoon through and there’s a bit of a delay as it all comes back together, add more stock. Repeat until the rice is cooked.

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Then it’s all nice and creamy and delectable!

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Flavor to taste with salt and pepper.

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And add cheese if you so wish (I definitely wish). Last time I made risotto I had shaved asiago, but this time it’s plain ol’ shredded mozzarella.

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Then pour yourself a glass of wine (or other beverage, I suppose) and enjoy!

This was a lovely little interlude in my weekend, but now it’s back to reality. At least until Monday night.