The Dinner, by Herman Koch

The DinnerWell, this was a book. A book I had no intention of reading, but then my book club picked it and I was in a reading slump with literally nothing else I was interested in and I figured, hey, maybe this will get me consuming books again. And it did, so plus ten points to my book club on that one?

But the book itself? Blergh. I had one of those strange reading experiences where I wanted to know what the heck was going on, so I was turning pages rapidly and taking very few breaks from reading… but I was not really enjoying the experience. Sure, I was curious how everything was going to turn out, but I didn’t actually care about the plot or the characters or anything in the book.

This is probably partially by design — the book is written in a close first person that gives no details about anything useful and all the details about the things that don’t matter, because that’s what the narrator wants to focus on.

The book takes place over the course of the titular dinner, with scenes from the dinner interspersed with flashbacks to earlier that evening, earlier that year, and earlier in various relationships that give varying degrees of context to the dinner at hand. At the beginning, all you really know is that a dude doesn’t want to go out to dinner with his brother; at the end there are far more pressing concerns about everyone at the table.

It’s a neat conceit, I’ll admit, and that conceit is definitely what kept me flipping pages. How is this detail going to come into play later? Does this seemingly throwaway sentence have greater import? How is the narrator going to reconcile this situation he’s describing with the life he thinks he’s living?

But the problem is, I didn’t really care about the narrator. He seems set up to be an unlikeable narrator, and I’ve seen this book compared to books like Gone Girl in that regard, but he is so completely detached from the unlikeable things that he does that I just can’t muster up feelings for him either way. I would love to hate him. But I don’t. Ditto for every other character in the book.

As often happens in cases like this, going to book club was helpful for increasing my respect for the book, if not my enjoyment of it. One of the more interesting things I picked up was a perspective on the book from someone who is a little bit obsessed with the Netherlands (the book is set there and translated from the Dutch). There is a particular event that this book, and the dinner itself, centers on, and it’s kind of weird, but my friend pointed out some social norms and policies that are different in the Netherlands that make the event, and the characters’ reactions to the event, make far more sense. So therefore I’m going to chalk up all the other things I didn’t understand to the cultural gulf between me and Holland.

So, yeah. It’s an interesting book to read, style-wise, but I wish the style had been wrapped around, say, any other story. Not the greatest book to kick off 2016 with, but it definitely inspired me to get reading and get some better books in my brain! Any suggestions for the year?

Recommendation: For fans of style over substance, Dutch-ness, and weird people doing very weird things.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

The Dead Mountaineer's InnWhat a weird little book. I picked it up largely because of its subtitle, “One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre”, and the fact that it’s a Russian book and hey, that’s totally diverse, and because I was promised amusement by the jacket copy. I’m pretty sure I got that amusement, but this book is so confusing that who knows what I thought about it?

Okay, things I do know. The book is set somewhere cold and snowy, at the Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (yeah, I don’t know why it’s different from the title), which is named for a mountaineer who stayed at the hotel when it was called something else and, you know, died. There’s a little “museum” set up with all of “HIS” stuff, and the owner is pretty sure HE is haunting the hotel. Our protagonist, Inspector Glebsky, is on a ski vacation at the hotel along with a bunch of weird guests, including a famous-ish magician, the magician’s androgynous niece or nephew, a married couple with a strange relationship, a mountaineering physicist of some renown, a tall drink of water who’s pretty great on skis, and a frail little man who possibly has tuberculosis.

Right. So. Most of the book is about all these strange people interacting with each other and with the prank-playing “ghost”, and a surprising amount of time is spent trying to figure out whether the androgynous kid is a dude or a chick, but then eventually there is a murder and Glebsky’s on the case. There’s a dead dude in a locked room (the best kind of case!), a strange mechanical object with no apparent use, several people whose luggage is suspect, and a whole lot of conflicting stories.

And, well, it’s weird. The case does not solve itself in the manner which you might expect from that description, and although there are not-so-subtle hints dropped throughout the novel that point you in the right direction it’s still kind of like, really? And there is a really lame epilogue, but this book was written in 1970 in Russian, so I’ll just let that slide.

What is great about this book is the characters, who are all strange in their own special way and who all think everyone else is the strange one, and the writing, which is maybe a little roughly translated or maybe is meant to evoke confusion with choppy sentences and disconnected thoughts. Either way, it lends this kind of “what the heck” vibe to the whole book that helps make the “what the heck” ending seem a little more appropriate.

I am definitely intrigued by this odd little book, and I will have to check out other weird Russian books in the future. Suggestions?

Recommendation: For those who love books that don’t make a lot of sense on purpose.

Rating: 8/10

p.s. Apparently if you’re not feeling up to actually reading this book, you can play it on Steam. If you do, let me know how it goes!

The Hilltop, by Assaf Gavron

The HilltopI picked this book up in the same swoop that brought me I Did Not Kill My Husband, and for much the same reasons. Foreign book, in translation, looks intriguing, and this one even let me know in advance that it was going to have some political satire, which was good to know because otherwise the beginning would have made absolutely no sense.

As with I Did Not Kill My Husband, let’s take it as given that I know very little about the culture and cultural references of Israel, so please forgive me when I inevitably get something wrong here.

Okay, so, the book starts with the formation of a settlement called Ma’aleh Hermesh C, which is built on a hilltop to be a sort of farm and then slowly and with an odd combination of permission and subterfuge becomes a little community with people living in shipping containers and fighting with the Palestinians who live next door. As you do?

This settlement is kind of the main character of the book; the story goes off to talk about other people but it always comes back to the settlement and the fact of its precarious position in the world and its resilience in the face of evacuation orders and miffed government officials and angry Palestinian neighbors and a strange Wall Street Journal story. These were the parts I didn’t really understand, but it’s not terribly difficult to find amusement in the very weird misfortune of others, so that’s still cool with me.

The parts of the book that fascinated me were the backstories of the two main person characters, Gabi and Roni. Their story starts when Roni shows up at Ma’aleh Hermesh C to stay with his brother, Gabi, the former in a spiffy suit and the latter in religious garments. Roni has left America for vague reasons and Gabi has taken up residence in this odd settlement for equally vague reasons, and as the book goes along we get glimpses of their childhood and young adulthood and come to understand how the both of them ended up where they are now.

Gavron does this in the way that I love best, where the characters talk to each other about past events as normal people would, e.g. “What about Mickey?” “-muttergrumble-” “Sucks to be you, dude” (these are… paraphrases), and then sometime later we get a scene where we find out just why it sucks to be that dude. It’s frustrating not knowing what the heck is going on at first, but it’s so awesome once you figure out what’s going on and see how the author played off of that withheld knowledge.

I also like that Gavron gives all of his characters at least a little backstory; Gabi and Roni get most of the spotlight but several of the other settlement residents get a chapter about their lives that helps explain how this crazy place has survived. He also keeps the characters as real as they can be, with no one ever getting exactly what they want or deserve but everyone doing what they can to make themselves happy. It’s a good contrast to the confusing satirical parts!

After this and I Did Not Kill My Husband, I am itching to get my hands on a translated book that has nothing to do with political satire. Ideas?

Recommendation: For fans of sly satire and those who know a bit more about Israel than I do.

Rating: 7/10

I Did Not Kill My Husband, by Liu Zhenyun

I Did Not Kill My HusbandGosh, what a strange little book. I picked this one out of the mountain of advance copies available to me due to its awesome title, the fact that it’s a book translated from the Chinese and I don’t read enough books written by non-Anglophone writers, and the fact that the description made it sound like it might be a little bit like Out.

It is not like Out. But it’s still pretty cool.

So the deal is, there’s a Chinese woman, Li Xuelian, who gets pregnant with a second child in a strict one-child area. But she’s got this great idea — she and her husband can get divorced, he’ll keep their kid, she’ll have the baby, and then they, two adults with just one kid each, can get married and have two kids! Genius! Except that after they go through the divorce, the husband gets remarried. Wah wah.

From the title, I was expecting that either Li would kill her husband and then deny it (as you do), or she would all but kill him and make his life terrible. The latter is what she tries to do, certainly, but what actually happens is that he goes on with his happy life and happy new wife, and Li becomes the tortured soul.

See, Li tries to undo that divorce of hers, but the judge and the court decide against her. She thinks this is ridiculous, so she goes to higher-ranking person after higher-ranking person in an attempt to get her way and leaves a trail of fired, demoted, and/or terrified government employees in her wake, but never gets the recourse she seeks. She eventually ends up sort of accidentally lodging a protest at a national event and ends up attempting to return every year for twenty years, though without any success.

The story is satirical in the style of Candide, where thing after thing keeps going wrong, though Li never thinks that any of it is for the best. As her fight progresses through the government, we meet some interesting political players and see Liu’s take on the ambitious go-getter, the no-nonsense planner, and the dude who just wants to get through the day, all of whom are shaking in their boots when Li comes around because they just can’t figure out what she wants. Of course, at some point all she probably wants is an apology, but by then it’s way too late for that.

There’s some other kind of joke in this book that I don’t quite get, which is that the characters often speak in idiom after idiom, repeating the same sentiments with different metaphors. I understand that that’s what they’re doing, but I’m not sure why or if it’s a joke on the characters or just fun wordplay or what. I will clearly have to study up on my Chinese satire.

Oh, and then the ending… this whole book is just trolling its reader, I think.

I’m really not sure what to make of this book, as I’ve never read anything quite like it before, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed my time with it. It has definitely inspired me to seek out more Chinese literature, though maybe just some straightforward fiction next time? We shall see. Suggestions welcome!

Recommendation: For readers who don’t mind books that make almost no sense even in the end.

Rating: 7/10

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldI think I say this all the time, but I do love my book clubs. I love having a reason to finally read a really good book or to trash a really terrible book with like-minded people. I especially love finding books like this one that I probably would never have heard of in my entire life except that my friend wasn’t allowed to make us read one of Murakami’s 800-page books and so she chose this one.

At first I was like, what the heck is this. There are two stories, both referenced in the title, that alternate back and forth and are both very weird in their own special ways. In the first story, we have a nameless protagonist (everyone’s nameless, actually, in this book) who is something called a Calcutec who is basically a one-man Enigma machine and earns his living encoding things without really knowing how… Murakami’s explanations basically exploded my brain here, but once I decided to just go with it everything was much better! Anyway, he gets called on this assignment to encode some information for a rather eccentric old man who works in an office that is… difficult to get to, let’s say, and once our protagonist takes said job even weirder things start happening with dudes stalking him and unicorn skulls making weird sounds and it’s all just… weird.

The other story should be weirder but actually makes more sense — in this one another unnamed protagonist is living in a strange town where people have to shed their shadows before entering and then get assigned jobs (what is this, The Giver?) like, in our guy’s case, reading dreams from skulls. The idea, I guess, is to let your shadow die off and then you live a happy shadow-less life, but our friend’s shadow may have other plans when it comes to that.

So… it’s weird. It’s very weird, in that Japanese way that so much Death Note has more or less prepared me for. But it’s also pretty fantastic. You know I’m a sucker for a good back-and-forth narrative, and it’s even better when the two stories start to show their interconnectedness, and it’s even more better (just… whatever) when things in one story start making you question things in the other story as well as your own existence. It’s one of those, and I love those.

I really don’t know what else to say about this book… I suppose if you wanted to you could dissect this book in all sorts of different ways and come up with Grand Thoughts About The Universe, but really I just enjoyed letting the story do its thing. Maybe you will, too?

Recommendation: For people who like a good punch to the brain every once in a while and are due for one.

Rating: 8/10

The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of HeavenAs with Broken Harbor a couple months ago, I found myself opening up this book while stuck in traffic on the way home, becoming immediately engrossed, and picking it up again as soon as I got home. Unlike Broken Harbor, I then had to go eat dinner or something and I more or less forgot about the book for the next week or two. Or three.

I mean, I read a bit of it here and there, but even though I was totally interested in the story I found it incredibly easy to do other things besides devour it. I think this problem stems primarily from the fact that I barely remember the details of the two previous books, especially The Angel’s Game, which this story heavily references. Any time there was something that I didn’t quite understand, I found myself thinking a moment about whether it was maybe something that I was supposed to know or something that I would find out soon. Some of those things I’m still not sure about.

Another problem I had with this novel was that it didn’t have a really solid plot. The story is from the point of view of our old friend Daniel, but is more or less about Fermín Romero de Torres, a close friend of Daniel and his family. There’s a frame story about Fermín getting married, which leads into Fermín’s backstory when he reveals to Daniel that he’s supposed to be not just dead, but executed. We learn about this terrible prison that Fermín was in with our less-old friend David Martín, and a bit about the prison’s warden that goes unresolved (I smell another book in the series!), and then there’s a strange trip to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and then it’s over.

And yet I still enjoyed reading this novel! Zafón and his translator turn a fantastic phrase, and I am so intrigued by his post-war Barcelona and Sempere’s bookshop and the whole world that Zafón has built. You can bet I’ll be picking up his next book whenever it comes out, and perhaps it will live up to the high expectations I will no doubt set for it!

Recommendation: Go read The Shadow of the Wind, for sure, and if you like the atmosphere of that book continue on!

Rating: 7/10
(RIP)

Death Note Vol. 6, by Tsugumi Ohba

Oh. Em. Gee.

This is another of the books I’ve read recently only because they were due back at the library. After things got very wonky in the last book, I was not sure I was going to like this next one.

But I did.

Things? Still wonky. L still doesn’t trust Light, which is as it should be, but now also he’s decided to go after Kira whatever the costs while the ex-police guys are like, um, shouldn’t we try to stop him killing people even if we can’t catch him? So there is a split, and Light gets caught on L’s side even though he doesn’t like it on account of the handcuffs that keep him attached to L at all times. Oh, and also on account of his girl-thing Misa being really excited about being used as bait to find Kira.

But! While Misa is doing the bait thing, she discovers that in fact she used to be a Kira and that Light was also one (they had made themselves forget this previously), so now she has even more leverage with the new Kira, provided she doesn’t slip up in front of the people who want to capture her. Who are also the people she is acting as bait for. And it’s all crazy and stuff.

But but! It gets even crazier when the plans start to come together and the new Kira is being chased and herded and almost caught… but then the book ends in a bit of a cliffhanger. And to make things worse, my husband says that what happens next is EVEN MORE INSANE. I am going to have to go track down book 7, like, yesterday. Sigh.

Recommendation: This stuff is insane, yo. Read it if you don’t mind your brains EXPLODING EVERYWHERE.

Rating: 8/10
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