Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #44: The Dinner by Herman Koch

This novel, a bestseller in Europe apparently, left me feeling upset, depressed, even slightly nauseated by the characters and the plot of this “simple little story” which is anything but. I’m not sure whether Koch has done us a service or disservice by writing this book, but I guess that it all depends on what the reader takes away from it.

The Dinner is centered around two Dutch couples—two brothers and their wives—meeting at an upscale restaurant to discuss something disturbing regarding their children. We are given tiny little clues all along the way but you need to get more than halfway through the book before you find out what has happened. A teenaged son from each couple have committed a horrific “Clockwork Orange” style attack on a homeless person, and seem to have gotten away with the act. The indistinct video of the incident that is picked up by a security camera and shown on the national news reveals the perpetrators—to their parents, at least—as their sons, and the couple are meeting to decide what to do.

Very early on, the reader sides with Paul and Claire, who are clearly a loving and happy couple, while the other couple Serge and Babette come into the restaurant after a huge fight. Babette’s eyes are red and swollen, while Paul’s brother Serge is embarrassed and unsympathetic. We learn that Serge is a prominent politician whose self-indulgent appetites and bevy of sycophants disgusts Paul, and during the first portion of The Dinner, the reader can easily sympathize with Paul’s viewpoint, especially since it is Paul who is narrating the story. However, as we learn what the couples are there to discuss, we discover that Paul and his wife are already decided to protect their son at any cost, while Serge has come to announce a plan to retire his candidacy for prime minister while naming the boys as the perpetrators as a way to bring it out into the open and help them deal with the consequences of what they have done. Babette appeals to Paul and Claire to change Serge’s mind, but Serge is adamant.

As the tensions build, we get to follow Paul’s increasingly disjointed sojourn down the rabbit hole of his own mental illness. We learn of Paul’s own tendency toward violent outbreaks of psychosis, and his momentary concern that this may have surfaced in his son, but we also learn that it was Paul who nurtured increasingly scary antisocial tendencies, in the name of “telling it like it is,” from his son’s earliest years. We begin to wonder just what messages Claire is sending Paul with her enigmatic smiles across the dinner table. We experience a brief encounter with Paul and Claire’s sociopathic son outside the restaurant, and see firsthand how his parents have created the nightmare they are now living.

Suddenly, our sympathies are with Serge who, whatever his flaws and weaknesses, is trying to do the right thing, and the balance of the story has suddenly shifted under us. The rapid escalation of the plot into an unimagined and unimaginable climax is both shocking and yet, unhappily, so absurd as to leave this reader, at least, shaking her head in disbelief. Whether Koch is offering up a commentary on mental illness, parenting failure, violence and moral ambivalence in contemporary society, or all of the above, I leave those of you with stronger stomachs than my own to decide.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #16: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.” The Namesake is a poignant and honest observation of family, cultural differences, and self discovery and the ways our experiences and upbringing inform our adult lives.

I honestly don’t want to say too much because I really enjoyed this book and want to let others go into it blind, as I did, as I feel it improves the experience. I will say that for me this is one of those books that really makes you feel what the characters are feeling and succeeds at unifying the human experience by showing that despite cultural differences, we are really at the core the same. It is definitely a read that will stay with you long after you put it down.

Ultimately we are all people trying to make it through. Some have it better, some have it worse, but we are all just trying to make sense of the hands we were dealt. “They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #6: How To Get Into The Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

Sara reviewed this last year and sent it on to me after I expressed an interest. Given that we live on different continents, that was quite a sweet gesture! Her review is probably a bit more focussed on the literary bit, whereas for me, this hits somewhat closer to home, and I’ll try to make sense of it in this review.
How To Get Into The Twin Palms is the story of Anya, a young woman born in Poland, but raised in America. After a childhood spent furiously trying to be, or at least be perceived as, American, she is now bored with both the restrictive culture of her parents’ home and life in L.A., where she lives in a Russian neighbourhood and struggles to survive on unemployment benefits. Trying to fit in somewhere, she is drawn to the Twin Palms, a club for the better-off Russians of L.A.. In an attempt to gain access to this exclusive club, she starts an affair with Lev, who might or might not be involved in criminal activities.
The story itself is quite depressing in that Anya seems deeply unhappy and barely objects to Lev treating her as a commodity. There isn’t much that excites her (she picks Lev only because he’s Russian and reacts to her attempts at flirtation), and soon it becomes clear that the Twin Palms won’t be the fulfillment she dreams of. It’s a short novel, so Anya doesn’t get much chance to grow or even just be portrayed in a sympathetic way. We never get to know her name, having been told in the beginning that she chooses “Anya” for its Russian vibe. What we get is a short glimpse of the life of a woman unsure of her place in the world, and this is what makes this novel interesting and very touching.
There are many things in this novel that are familiar to me. My husband is from Poland, and from a few visits to the country alone I can relate to Anya’s thoughts about family traditions, local food and – the uncomfortable highlight of any Polish road trip – the sight of prostitutes and grannies selling mushrooms in the forests. But the thing that immediately got me was the start of an early chapter: “What I am is always the first question”. It is. I’m German, I’ve lived in Britain for 8 years, and I’ve made my peace with this question now. It’s almost never a sign of resentment or distrust, it might even be genuine excitement about meeting someone even the tiniest bit exotic, but it still stings. It’s never “What do you do?” or “Do you like [insert topic of discussion]?” Sometimes it’s not even “And what’s your name?” It’s the fact that in some way, I don’t belong. Like Anya, I’m not completely comfortable with my cultural heritage, and I’d gladly masquerade as something else for a while, but like Anya, I lack the language skills. (I will never pass as Polish, even though I’m halfway there by virtue of my marriage, because that language is IMPOSSIBLE! Erhem.) But most days I’m fine. I have become many things; I’ve been made welcome by a lot of people, and I will always rock in quizzes that ask questions about obscure German traditions. My children, I am told again and again, will benefit from their many backgrounds and language skills. But even that worries me. Will my daughter feel like Anya, never truly at home in any of her cultures? She’s only 4, but I’ve heard people comment on her (very slight) German accent more than once. Her German sounds British. Her Polish is that of a toddler. For me, she’s a genius, and these are the things that make her special. Will it still be a positive thing when she’s grown up? At some point in the book, Lev tells Anya she speaks Polish like a child. I felt her pain jumping off the page. These are the things that ocassionally keep me up at night…
There is a lot more going on in How To Get Into The Twin Palms than what actually happens in 190 pages. And while some might argue that the plot is a bit slight, I read a lot more between the lines than I thought I would. And now I need a good Polish vodka.