Archive for October, 2014

The Dinner / Herman Koch

The Dinner is a difficult novel to review.  What makes it special are its unexpected plot twists.  That is no mean feat since the plot is simplicity itself.  On a warm summer evening in Amsterdam, two couples meet for dinner at a trendy restaurant.  Without stepping outside the restaurant and its grounds, the story unfolds over the course of their meal.  Sounds pretty humdrum, doesn’t it?  Paul Lohman and his wife Clare are the first couple.  The second is made up of Serge Lohman, Paul’s brother, and his wife Babette.  It just so happens that Serge stands a good chance to be the country’s next prime minister.  As the book’s narrator, it is Paul’s voice that lures the reader into the story with his down to earth observations, laced with just enough bite to make the comments interesting.  In his asides to the reader, he pokes fun at his brother “the wine connoisseur,” mocks the snobby maitre d’, the restaurant’s overpriced menu and small portions.  In other words, he seems like a reasonable, common Joe.  While the conversation between the four is banal on the surface, the reader begins to sense that the polite small talk masks a darker topic that has yet to be discussed.  It so happens that each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, and the topic in the wings happens to be about them.  While the satire is humorous at first, by the final chapters my laughter turned to shock.  Interesting and smart as the plot is, I confess the book’s unexpected twists left me feeling quite disturbed.  And yet I found the novel hard to put down.  In some ways this novel reminds me of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Nothing is what it seems on the surface, none of the characters are particularly likable, and one cannot always trust the story’s narrator to be telling the truth.  Like coming upon the scene of a nasty car crash, most readers of this novel will be left perturbed and strangely thrilled.

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Summer’s Ghost

This path inclined toward the sky
winds among maple and ash.
In the bejeweled cornfields below,
like a tattered cobweb,
fog’s gauze shimmers in the wind.

I stop and inhale the moist damp
and then exhale a cloud.
Having come through sticky dew,
speckled and sun-kissed,
my damp glasses smear a rainbow.

Leaves bright as spring flowers,
frosted red, carry no scent.
But a hint of fragrance remains
in the warmth of this sun
still haunted by summer’s ghost.

The Brothers Karamazov / Fyodor Dostoevsky

This classic novel has been reviewed countless times since its publication in 1880 and I can only add my voice to the chorus of praise it has received.  It is a spiritual melodrama that explores the moral struggles concerning faith and doubt, free will, possible patricide, tradition vs. modernization in Russia, all filtered through the eyes and deeds of a truly dysfunctional family.  The three brothers in the story, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha have issues with Fyodor, their father.  He is a “sponger,” a buffoon, and a drunkard who takes no interest in his motherless children.  As a result, the three brothers have been raised apart from each other and their father.  Dostoevsky uses a variety of characters, viewpoints, and narratives to convey the themes of the book.  The two older brothers, Ivan and Dmitri, are presented as being most like their father, while Alyosha represents good triumphing over evil.  Dmitri’s relationship with his father is the most volatile, escalating to violence when the two clash over money and compete for the affection of the same woman.  Tension mounts and culminates in Fyodor’s murder, with Dmitri arrested for the crime.  While he is not guilty of the crime, the second half of the novel gives a gripping blow-by-blow presentation of his trial.  It is the murder of their father that leads the older brothers to a spiritual rebirth as they examine their intentions and actions in the events leading to the crime.  The first half of the novel is the most difficult to read because of the numerous themes explored, and while they often seem off-topic, each serves to develop the true character of the major protagonists.  I found I could only read about ten pages of this novel at a sitting before feeling overwhelmed by its content, but my slow reading of it gave me a greater appreciation of its complexity.  This review barely touches upon the depths of this novel, and the curious are urged to read it for themselves.  While it requires patience and time to get through, the book rewards by becoming permanently embedded in one’s memory.  Dostoevsky died shortly after its completion, and it represents the culmination of his talent as a writer.  What can I add but that this is a must read.

Making Our Escape

Beginning the long walk back
to the car, I trudge behind my sister.
Father points the way with
his flashlight. A conductor’s baton,
it narrow beam, uncertain,
staggers like a drunk towards home.
Daylight has been forgotten
as night hardens into place with frost.
Stumbling our way across
a harvested cornfield, none of us is
brave enough to turn and
face the trees. With malicious intent,
they seem to exhale the dark.
After all, dragging it away, we have
stolen one of their own.
December is already two weeks old,
but its dusting of snow
does not cushion the harsh crunch
from the crushed stubble.
Our only road is a faint wheel track
left by a farmer’s tractor.
The guilty one still holding the saw,
I hurry my pace to keep up.

The Elephant

A trip to Mayo revealed
suspicious growths on his lungs.
A lifetime smoker,
at eighty-six he did not need to
be told what that meant.
Mother said, “He doesn’t want
to discuss the matter,
but is resolute to die at home.”
He never returned
for the appointment to confirm
a definitive diagnosis.
Cancer was to be the unnamed
elephant in the room.
In the time following, if asked
about his health,
he would deflect the question.
It was Mother who told
us about his loss of appetite,
those sleepless nights,
the frequent bouts with pain.
A man of few words
and one never driven to tears,
on the phone he would
discuss the garden’s prospects,
compare weather news,
then end the call with “me too”
when I declared my love.
Shortly after his next birthday,
thirteen months later
and one day before his death,
he still would not
acknowledge that elephant.
Even as it stepped on
his toes, he refused the gift of
morphine, telling me
with a wan smile, “I don’t want
to become addicted.”

Fishing

When Sputnik first floated like a cork
in the Heavens above,
I pictured it attached to a fishing line,
cast out as a prayer that
would tempt God’s answering nibble.
Then in the Sixties
my faith was tested when, bobbers all,
a fleet of satellites
could not coax a tug from that ocean.
Undisturbed hooks,
I came to believe, meant we’d never
be able to snag a star.
Now in my sixties, returning again
with an empty creel,
I’ve come to understand one thing:
What matters most isn’t
the last attempt, but hope in the next.
It’s the possibility
of an answer that compels each cast.

Blasphemy / Sherman Alexie

This collection of new and selected stories by Sherman Alexie was published in 2012. To understand what these stories are about, one must first know that Alexie is a Native American, and that he grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpint, Washington. In this collection, he observes modern day life among Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part, the setting is not on any particular Indian reservation. Rather, the stories take place in the larger nearby cities of Seattle and Spokane. But the “rez” is never far from their thoughts. The Indian characters he focuses on here are trying to find their way in white society while holding on to their own sense of identity. They come from troubled childhoods where alcoholism, diabetes, violence, and poverty have left deep scars on their psyches. The anthology includes fifteen older stories with sixteen new ones. Racism, stereotypes, and loss of language and traditional customs are topics frequently addressed. So too are the difficulties of married life, be it between two Indians or mixed couplings. The lives of the characters he portrays are damaged ones, but almost all of them use humor as a coping mechanism. Thought provoking and often witty, these stories deliver a message without resorting to preaching. Best of all, Alexie’s writing is straightforward and accessible to the average reader. If you haven’t read any of his poetry, short stories, or novels, this collection provides a great introduction to his work.