Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Dinner (Herman Koch)

I'll be honest. The only reason I considered reading The Dinner is the review quotation on the cover which calls it "the European Gone Girl". I really liked Gone Girl. I saw Koch's book wasn't doing so hot on Goodreads (I consider anything under 3.50 "bad" because I am picky and/or I don't have time to read every book in the universe, right?) but I still decided to give it a go because it actually sounded interesting.

Two sets of parents (Paul, the narrator, and Claire; Babette and Serge) are meeting at a restaurant to discuss a horrible incident involving their children. Ooh, family dysfunction. How delicious. It's going to be really hard to talk about this book because the actual incident is supposed to be part of the mystery. In Gone Girl, we know that Amy goes missing. It doesn't spoil the twists to know that. But what went down between the parents' children is one of the "big twists"; I put it in quotation marks because it's one of my issues with the book.

This book is short--barely 300 pages--and that's another reason I decided to read it. Even if it's not good, I thought, at least it's short. Despite its tiny length, I was horrified by how overly long the book felt. Seriously, it took me two weeks to read the thing because it dragged. The whole thing is very strange structurally--our narrator, one of the fathers, slides in and out of time. Whole chapters will be about events that happened 10 years before the dinner that we're supposed to be paying attention to. I ought to applaud Koch for how realistic this feels--I know that real people's thoughts are never focused solely on the matter at hand--but it grew tiresome after the first two or three times. There's an uncomfortable scene where Paul goes to the bathroom to escape his insufferable brother; another man walks in and we get a treatise on how loud the other man's pee stream is. WHY.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Super-Review #4

The Call of the Wild
I was excited to read this book because it's one of those ones that I should have read years ago. All I knew was that there were dogs and Alaska involved. That seemed like enough to make the book exciting. Instead, it was dull. There are passages of engaging writing (mostly describing Alaska), but the book, which is really short, felt a little too padded. Buck is kind of frustrating as a narrator because he's so malleable. How can I sympathize with a character if he changes his personality every few pages? I know that this book and others by Jack London were mired in controversy about realistically portraying animals (it even involved Teddy Roosevelt, seriously), so I couldn't tell if this was supposed to be an "accurate" rendition of a dog's mind, but it didn't work for me.
My rating: 3/5

Sweet Bird of Youth
Approaching the end of my Tennessee Williams readings! Hooray! This one is about an aging actress and her gigolo, who is trying to blackmail her for a chance at stardom and a way to get his ladylove (to whom he gives a venereal disease) out of the small Southern town he's from. It was pretty good, mostly because of Alexandra del Lago (the aging actress, who is even more fun in the film in Geraldine Page's more-than-capable hands), but as with any text (visual or written) with an aging actress in it, I am going to unconsciously compare it to Sunset Boulevard and it is not going to hold up to that scrutiny. This play is markedly more fun than some other Williams plays and is probably among the better plays that explores youth (which, as a theme, appears in almost every play he wrote).
My rating: 4/5

Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela
This Elena Poniatowska novella (short story? pretend biography? I just don't even know) was actually kind of bad. The idea is that the letters are written to Diego Rivera from his first wife, Angelina Beloff, but it's puzzling because Poniatowska chooses to fictionalize the letters. What ends up happening is twelve letters of whining and irritating, clingy behavior. I hope that Quiela was not nearly so annoying in real life. Yes, it's horrible your child died but can you please stop talking about it (jeez I'm such a mean guy).
My rating: 2/5

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an e-ARC of this novel for review!

The most difficult thing about a concept novel is that it has two levels of functionality--there's the concept-level function where whatever gimmick the author uses must function and there's the regular novel-level function where the book must stand up to our expectations for a narrative. The good news for concept authors is that, if the concept is really intriguing and well-crafted, as a reader I might cut you a little slack if the story is not up to par. If the book in terms of plot and character is fantastic and the words used to write it are beautiful but the concept is illogical or bland, the entire book will nonetheless fall apart.

That's why it's such a pleasure when I encounter a book where high-concept and high-quality converge; the results are beautiful and often breath-taking (the best examples being Cloud Atlas and The Time Traveler's Wife, in my opinion). Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is an example of a book melding its two parts into one amazing work. The concept: Ursula Todd can live her life over and over until she gets it right. For example, the book starts off with her mother delivering her stillborn, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. "Darkness falls" and the chapter begins anew, this time with Ursula surviving the experience.

The book navigates variable timelines of Ursula's life over and over and it is always engaging; Atkinson never makes the idea seem boring, even when we must re-read the same version of events repeatedly. It becomes like a scavenger hunt, seeking out the differences to figure out how the events are going to change and how Ursula is going to survive this time around.