Three Books to Make You Uncomfortable

28 May

Tis the season of the beach read, and nothing says beach read like Hitler and slavery.

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TITLE: Summer House With Swimming Pool
AUTHOR: Herman Koch
PAGES: 387 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Dinner
SORTA LIKE: Tom Perrotta meets Bret Easton Ellis
FIRST LINE: “I am a doctor.”

Summer House With Swimming Pool is Koch’s second novel translated into English from the original Dutch (I reviewed the first, The Dinner, a few weeks ago). Like The Dinner, SHWSP is a creepy suspenseful family drama involving parents’ actions when it comes to their children.

Doctor Marc Schlosser and his family—wife Caroline and daughters Julia and Lisa—find themselves becoming friends with Marc’s patient, famous actor Ralph Meier, and his family, whom the Schlossers ultimately join on a vacation at the Meier’s summer house. While Marc wiles away his vacay passively loathing Ralph (while half-assedly wooing Judith), both families are suddenly affected by a tragic event that forces them to contend with their true feelings about each other. Continue reading

Chris Harrison’s The Perfect Letter Is a Festival of Cliches

14 May

y450-293I suppose it’s not surprising that someone let Chris Harrison write a book. The diminutive all-American host of The Bachelor and Bachelorette has participated in some 29 seasons of televised romantic Hunger Games, during which time he’s perfected the art of soberly watching men and women choose their future fiancees via a series of melodramatic flower handouts. It doesn’t much matter whether the bachelor/ette is bubbly or reserved, smart or dim-witted, good at juggling two-dozen potential significant others or hilariously ill-equipped. Regardless, Harrison is there, be-suited and poker-faced, his benignly sympathetic countenance a cross between the earnest enthusiasm of Carson Daly hosting The Voice and the thinly veiled smugness of Alex Trebek on Jeopardy. Harrison has no qualms about proclaiming each season of The Bachelor “the most controversial ever,” and is a master at addressing “Bachelor Nation” without smirking. One might even think he believes in it all: the frenzied, tumbling romances; the grand proclamations; the too-soon engagements. At the very least, Harrison knows one thing about love: It sells.  Continue reading

The Frank And Claire Underwood of Amsterdam

8 May

15797938Every single person in The Dinner, Herman Koch’s 300-page bottle episode of a psychological thriller, is just the absolute worst.

Set in Amsterdam (the book is translated from its original Dutch), The Dinner is about two couples who go to a fancy dinner together to discuss a pressing matter involving their respective children. Paul Lohman, attending the evening’s festivities with his wife Claire, is a former teacher with a petulant attitude and an impatient streak, both of which he exercises freely against his brother Serge, who, along with his wife Babette, makes up the rest of the dinner party. Serge’s burgeoning candidacy for Netherlands prime minister is but one of many things about him that irks the shit out of Paul. Continue reading

Megan Daum Might Be The Lovechild of Fran Lebowitz And Nora Ephron

30 Apr

DaumSometimes I discover writers whose brains I’d love to poke around in, whose ideas are either so different from mine or so inherently unique that to read something of theirs is like tiptoeing into another universe. If I had to be honest, I’d say these are the authors to whom I generally gravitate—my love of reading started as an escape (from family drama, from friend drama, from my longtime and sometimes overwhelming discomfort in my own skin), and so I’m drawn to books whose perspectives are desperately unfamiliar. I want to be taken somewhere. I want to miss my subway stop and stay up late and cancel brunch plans because of a book. (Despite the obnoxious literary backlash against Stephen King, my SK fondness comes from his ability to inspire such intense fleeting obsessions). Continue reading

Station Eleven Is Your Weekly Reminder That The World Is Going to End Soon

23 Apr

StationElevenHCUS2In the precious reading time afforded by my daily commute, the world is often ending. Sometimes its Armageddon by plague (The Stand, The Dog Stars, Blindness); sometimes by zombies or vampires (World War Z, Warm Bodies, The Strain); sometimes by nature (The Age of Miracles). Every so often the end comes by way of nuclear war (A Canticle for Leibowitz), or global destitution (Ready Player One), or deadly sightings of something or someone as-yet unidentified (Bird Box). The method doesn’t matter; what does is the universal consensus among the fiction-writing community that shit is going to hit the fan at some point, and that humans are not emotionally prepared for that cleanup.

Despite a heretofore limitless appetite for end-of-the-world novels, I went into Station Eleven—which served six dutiful months un-cracked on my nightstand—feeling a bit burned out on the genre. What could Emily St. John Mandel say that so many others hadn’t already? What point could she make that would separate Station Eleven from the dozens of post-apocalyptic books that have come before, whose conclusions can be summed up in a few tweets: Fate is fickle; people are inherently bad, or inherently good, depending on the author. Humanity is resilient. These notions—sometimes mixed in with bits of zombie and/or vampire lore—are the main tenets of fiction’s collective Hot Take on the end of the world. Winter Is Coming, and people will do anything for a coat.  Continue reading

I Still Haven’t Recovered From The People In The Trees

15 Apr

img-thepeopleintreesjpg_171130278616The Amazon reviews on Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees are a mixed bag, and fairly so: It’s a beautiful, fascinating and imaginative book—that can at times be highly unpleasant to read.

TPITT is, most immediately, an imagined memoir from doctor Norton Perina—the story is loosely based on IRL doctor D. Carleton Gajdusek—who in his 20’s stumbles upon a lost tribe on a remote Micronesian island. A portion of this tribe, who come to be known as “the dreamers,” suffer from a unique affliction that allows their bodies to stop aging while their minds continue to. Centuries old, while physically middle-aged and mentally childlike, the dreamers prove a career-making discovery for Perina, who goes on to become hugely famous and to adopt dozens of the tribe’s offspring. And yet Perina’s memoir is filtered through a second party, Ronald Kuboderia, a former lab assistant (the NYT review, perfectly, describes him as “Smithers to Perina’s Mr. Burns”) who we discover has asked Perina to write said memoir from prison, where Perina is serving time for pedophilia charges. Like I said: unpleasant. Continue reading

You Know What’s Punk Rock About Marriage?

9 Apr

51tWJT1BYdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It would be almost be worth my (hypothetical) husband having an affair—maybe worth going through life with a name reminiscent of both “awful” and “offal”—if it meant I could go on to write a book as spectacular as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation.

A slim treatise on the maturation of a marriage, DOS is so compact as to be easily mistaken for simplistic. There is a husband and there is a wife, who are for all intents and purposes normal. They argue over groceries, money, chores. They have a daughter. They go to therapy (referred to as the “Little Theater of Hurt Feelings”). But don’t be fooled. DOS’s nameless female lead, who refers to herself as I, she or the wife depending on where in the couple’s emotional timeline we are, is one of the most interesting narrators I’ve stumbled across in recent memory. And the book’s unique format—short bursts of text that run the gamut from anecdotes to literary quotes to philosophical musings—belies its sophistication. The otherwise humdrum resonates on a much deeper level here.

Continue reading

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