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 #11: Preacher Volumes 6-9 by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

Volumes 6-9 of Preacher are just as offensive, jarring, and compelling as the first five.  Jesse continues on his path to hold God accountable for abandoning his creation, and has a showdown with the zealots.  

After the nuclear showdown, Cassidy and Tulip end up on their own, and Cassidy finally shows his true colors.  (Think Spike, but without any of the drops of remorse and emotion that he later develops.  Just deplorable and self-serving, to the core.)

Eventually, Jesse ends up as a sheriff in a small town and has a surprise reunion with someone from his past.  The conclusion of this series is explosive, surprising, and not altogether what I was hoping for, but I highly recommend it to like-minded people who have a high tolerance for violence and depravation.  If you have seen and appreciated “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” then this may be for you.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #10: Preacher Volumes 1-5 by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

My good friend has quite the comic collection and I’ve been reading through his library, bit by bit.  Preacher was my next challenge and boy, was it a doozy.  It was equal parts vile, disgusting, horrifying and entertaining.  Definitely not something that all people appreciate.  I’m going to borrow a paragraph from the Goodreads posted review, because I couldn’t say it better myself.

“One of the most celebrated comics titles of the late 1990s, PREACHER is a modern American epic of life, death, love and redemption also packed with sex, booze, blood and bullets – not to mention angels, demons, God, vampires and deviants of all stripes.”

Basically, Jesse Custer is an accidental preacher who gets filled with the unholy offspring of an angel and demon (which allows him to, among other things, command people to bend to his will), and God is afraid of it and has gone on vacation.  Meanwhile, a secret religious organization is trying to use Jesse to be the next prophet and his girlfriend, who dabbled in being a murderer for hire is along for the ride.  And by ride, I sometimes mean riiiide (heh). And his best friend is Cassidy, a vampire who is there to help…sort of.

Got it?  Yeeeeah.  Volumes 1-5 take us on a wild journey through the plans of the religious fanatics and backstories of Cassidy and Jesse including a trip home for Jesse to visit his family.  And by “family” I mean his grandmother and uncles who make the folks in Deliverance look like cuddly puppies and rainbows.

Oh.  And there is a character named “Arseface.”  (I’ll just leave that there.)  Basically, this story takes the worse things I could think of and makes them much, much worse.  Nobody tell my mom I read it, k?


Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #17: Townie by Andre Dubus III

Townie is a memoir written by the author of House of Sand and Fog, among other fine novels. It portrays the journey of one young man’s descent into a personal hell, and his inspiring climb back out again. Written in novelesque fashion, it reminded me of nothing so much as a non-fiction version of some of Dennis Lehane’s poignant novels set in a south end of Boston dominated by alcohol, drugs, crime and violence. Dubus spent his impoverished childhood in the seventies moving with his divorced mom and three siblings from one dying New England mill town to the next, staying one step ahead of eviction, often going hungry and being bullied and beaten up everywhere he went. Endless television and hiding out became his and his siblings’ lives for years, their mother’s occasional magical optimism and their professor/writer father’s weekly fly-through visits their only relief from the grimness.

The constant humiliation of being a perpetual victim eroded Dubus’ soul, and at one point, as he puts it, he “broke through the membrane” of social conscience that prevents most people from using violence against another. In his teens, he began a punishing, obsessive routine to build up his body and learn to fight, and then he began to wreak revenge, looking for any and all slights—real or imagined, against himself or against another–to beat perceived bullies to a pulp, and coming near to killing several of them. One sister became a drug dealer, while his brother and youngest sister did their best to hide from their lives in their rooms. His life becomes a schizophrenic one of insightful observations on one level but a totally inability to rein in or overcome his insane fury on the other.

Dubus’ discovery of writing as a way to channel himself into something both healing and creative is a slow process, as is his shedding of the animal rage that continues to drive him. It also eventually enables him to build a relationship with his quirky father around forgiveness and a shared love of the written word. Dubus’ life is painfully depicted, beautifully rendered, and a universal warning to the rest of us that our inherent humanity is not something necessarily handed to us, but needs to be strived for and won, sometimes over and over again.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

As a general rule, I avoid young adult books turned into hit movies, but after my daughter—a high school English teacher whose tastes I respect—taught The Hunger Games to her class, I decided to give the series a try. One long weekend later, in which I devoured the popular Collin’s trilogy borrowed from a neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter, I can unreservedly say that the books are a worthy contribution to the young adult genre, with a wealth of social and political commentary about war, totalitarianism, political leadership and personal responsibility all woven into the fabric of a compelling adventure story.

Since most people have either read the book, seen the movie (based on the first of the series), or read a review, I won’t bother going into plot details, except to observe that author Collins very clearly modeled her high-tech dystopic society on a very old one—ancient Rome, to be exact—where the decadent capital survives solely based on the exploitation of outlying districts whose slave labor services the needs of the Roman populace under the watchful eyes of the centurions.  At one point, it is explained to the heroine Katniss that the name of this dystopia—Panem—actually comes from the Latin expression panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses,” a metaphor used by the Roman poet Juvenal to decry the deliberate erosion of a citizenry by providing diversions to gratify the population’s most shallow needs in exchange for abdication of responsibility.  This is clearly the case in Panem’s Capitol, where shallowness and excess—in fashion, in food, in entertainment (the Hunger games, for example), in thought itself—is the norm, and stands in sharp contrast to the poverty, the desperation, the struggle to survive in the Districts. And just as Rome fell, so too must Panem.

[A relevant aside here, if I may. It didn’t seem to me to be much of a stretch to read between the lines of Collin’s descriptions of Panem, and see today’s ubiquitous advertisements hyping prestige, youth, sex, and beauty. Our children and teens are already plugged into their “circuses”– iPod, iPads, and video games–while their parents watch endless hours of reality television, Superbowl extravaganzas, fantasy, and gore.  Bread and circuses, American-style.]

Panem’s annual Hunger Games were highly creative, horribly bloody, and grotesquely fascinating, and to me they resembled nothing so much as an elaborately-designed video game, complete with disasters, monsters and enemies hiding around every corner.  Indeed, Hunger Games video games are reportedly in development right now, and are sure to be in the hands of our children soon, a fact which raises some pressing questions about the corrosive effects of these killings games on those who participate in them. Collin’s chose adolescents to serve as the “tributes” in the Hunger Games, and then places us—her readers– inside the Games through the minds of Katniss and Peeta, where we get to experience not only their horror, terror, and grief inside the Arena, but as importantly, the mental and emotional deterioration that they and all the “victors” experience in the aftermath of the Games.  I found the lengthy, almost clinical, descriptions of disassociation, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic shock that afflicted the Game victors—many for decades—the most affecting parts of Collins’ story.

Obviously, this trilogy speaks to youth on many different levels. But Collins chose to write not a fairy tale, but a story which offers some dark truths about the world. And for that, she is to be commended.