Showing posts with label herman koch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label herman koch. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

September Reads: Generation Chef, and new Herman Koch

In between all the craziness going on around my house this month, I've actually still managed to READ!  Here's the latest and greatest from 'round these parts lately:

Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner
Avery Books, 2016
copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Hey, remember how I love foodie nonfiction?  Yeah, you probably forgot, because it's been so long since I reviewed any!  But when Generation Chef was offered up to me for review, I absolutely could not resist.  Journalist Karen Stabiner shadowed up-and-coming New York City chef Jonah Miller as he embarked upon his life's dream: opening a restaurant of his own.  As Miller opened the door to his restaurant (Huertas), Stabiner bore witness to everything: the bureaucratic frustrations of real estate, investors, and liquor licenses; the continual management of both kitchen and service employees; the painstaking balance between making a menu that's true to the chef, and one that gets people in the door.  I was fully impressed by the depth of detail that she was able to include--this is one of those nonfiction books that almost reads like fiction, because so much emotion is embedded in the text.
The book stands out for another reason: Stabiner takes the story beyond Miller's journey with Huertas, and weaves in the journeys of other, more seasoned chefs, and how they did (or did not) find success.  All of these side stories compliment the central narrative perfectly, without taking away from the flow of the book.
Generation Chef will amaze you (with Miller's persistence and drive), amuse you (there's a fair amount of restaurant-style humor included), and make you incredibly hungry.  Seriously, if I didn't live 7 hours from NYC, I'd be at Huertas right now ordering nonstop pintxos.  Foodies and nonfiction fans alike will love this read!

Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch
Hogarth, 2016
copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

I am doing a bang-up terrible job of turning down ARCs lately, especially those from authors that I've enjoyed in the past.  I know Herman Koch's The Dinner was not for everyone, but I was a huge fan, and Summer House With Swimming Pool worked equally well for me.  I couldn't wait to see what Koch had in store with this latest release, Dear Mr. M, which deals with the disappearance of a high school teacher after he has an affair with one of his students.
Since this is a mini review, the short version is that I did not enjoy this one as much as Koch's other two novels.  It started off in typical Koch fashion: narrator is a creepy, possibly psychotic?, stalker-type, and the constant flashbacks make the storyline continuously more mysterious.  However, about halfway through the book, the narration switches to the girl who had the affair with her teacher, and Koch lost me.  Her story was too drawn out and lacked the suspense of the earlier section.  By the time we switched to other, more engaging narrators, it was hard for me to jump back on board and enjoy the (admittedly twisty) conclusion.  This one definitely had a whiff of the Herman Koch I remember from his first two books, but didn't pack the same punch.

What are you reading this month?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Worst Vacation Ever = Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Title: Summer House with Swimming Pool
Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: June 3, 2014 (English version)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

When a medical mistake goes horribly wrong and Ralph Meier, a famous actor, winds up dead, Dr. Marc Schlosser is forced to conceal the error from his patients and family. After all, reputation is everything in this business. But the weight of carrying such a secret lies heavily on his mind, and he can't keep hiding from the truth…or the Board of Medical Examiners.

The problem is that the real truth is a bit worse than a simple slipup. 

My Review:

There is a lot (LOT) more to the book description above if you look at the Goodreads link, but I didn't include it because I think it's SUPER SUPER spoilery.  And there are few things I dislike more than a spoilery book description!

If you've read The Dinner (Koch's other English-translated HERE), you likely suspect that this book is rather dark and unsettling.  And if so, you're 100% correct.  To paraphrase my thoughts on the other novel, I was impressed with the character development (none of them were quite what they seemed) but put off by the farfetched nature of many of their actions, as well as the slow-moving plot action.

That said, I believe I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool more than The Dinner.  This was likely in part because I already knew what to expect from Koch, so the things that threw me off about the first novel didn't ruffle my feathers in this one.  Again, we have highly unlikeable characters all the way around (there's no other way to say it--the protagonist, Marc, is a straight-up a-hole), characters making very questionable choices, and inaccurate medical details that are often sprung from Koch's imagination.  However, one big difference is that I did not find the plot slow-moving at all in Summer House--something new was constantly being revealed, and the book takes place over a longer time period, so there was more to keep me involved as things moved along.

This combination of elements worked better for me this time around.  Koch has created an exceptionally thrilling, foreboding novel here, one that is sure to leave you feeling uneasy long after you finish reading.  (Seriously, some of the subject matter in this one is really stomach-turning at times.)  The "summer house" in question is brought into the novel as Marc (in the midst of the medical error that was mentioned above) flashes us back to the previous summer, when he and his family vacationed with the doomed Ralph Meier at a rental house on the coast.  The sinister nature of the novel's events come together slowly, which kept me riveted from beginning to end.  I had an inkling of what was going on before it was actually revealed, but that didn't make the buildup to the conclusion any less absorbing.

Overall, an excellent read, if not terribly unsettling.  I need to go read something about unicorns or fluffy puppies to even myself out.  If Koch can take a beautiful summer vacation and turn it into something horrific, I can't wait to see what he'll take on next.

What's the most disturbing novel you've read lately?

Ever rented a summer house?  Where?  DETAILS!  (I'm still waiting for the snow to melt here, give me some hope.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Title: The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: February 12, 2013 (English edition)
Source: personal purchase

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

It's a summer's evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse -- the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.
     Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.
     Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator,  The Dinner  promises to be the topic of countless dinner party debates. Skewering everything from parenting values to pretentious menus to political convictions, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

My Review:

If I had to name the book that was recommended to me the most times in the last year, it would be The Dinner.  I think I have the Wall Street Journal to thank for that, since it billed the novel as "the European Gone Girl" several months back.  (Must I remind you for the eleventy billionth time how I feel about Gone Girl?)

Okay, I knew I had to give this one a try.  I put it on my 30 Before 35 list to make sure it happened relatively soon, and here we are.

First of all, even though the two novels are vastly different in subject, I can see why the WSJ made the comparison with Gillian Flynn's novel.  It's more a comparison of themes rather than actual plot points.  The most basic way to put it is that there is a complete lack of moral compass in both novels.  In The Dinner, Paul (our protagonist) introduces us to his three fellow diners, as well as the terrible actions of their children that prompted this meeting in a hoity-toity Amsterdam restaurant.  These specifics are unveiled very slowly--so slowly, in fact, that after a while I started to get bored.  I didn't see where the hook was, the "thing" that was going to make this novel grip me and stick around in my brain for a while, because I felt like I had all the details and could see where they would eventually take me.

However, the catch is that none of the characters are quite as they originally seem.  Yes, you get a lot of the details about the 4 diners in the first half of the novel--enough detail to make assumptions about how they will later act.  But you're going to assume these things thinking that they are capable of rational action...when in fact, they often are not.  Nope, I'd say these four are quite psychologically effed up, for lack of a better phrase (two of them in particular).  And that leads to a whole series of events that I didn't see coming.  That's the hook.

By the time I reached the end, I had mixed feelings.  I like how Koch took the four diners, introduced them quite slowly and methodically in the beginning, and then suddenly started revealing details that changed my entire perception of them by the end.  That's not easy to do, especially in a novel that is relatively short in length--and especially when one of the four characters in question is narrating the story.  Character development = A++.

However, the downside for me was that by the end, I felt like the choices made by these characters were almost too unbelievable.  I know a lot of Gone Girl critics that panned Flynn's novel for that reason, though I disagreed with that assessment in that case.  However, in The Dinner, that was precisely my issue.  I understand what Koch was trying to illustrate--the idea that we will go to great (maybe borderline insane) lengths to protect our families--but it was a little too out there for me at times.  Not to mention that some of the specifics were a bit far-fetched (ex: there's an important detail that's based around an "amniotic fluid test" for mental disabilities that I'm fairly sure does not exist). I left Gone Girl feeling like it was a situation that could actually happen--I didn't leave The Dinner feeling the same way.

My final assessment: as literary fiction, The Dinner is an intriguing piece of work.  The pacing and character development is spot-on, and for that reason I'd say it's definitely worth the read.  However, on the "psychological thriller" side of things, it didn't completely grab me.  And for this, I blame the Wall Street Journal--because is it really fair to compare two authors' work so directly?

Have you read The Dinner?   Do you think it's fair to compare it to Gone Girl?   And if you haven't read it yet, how do you feel when a novel is closely compared to another well-known you think it creates good hype, or leaves too much room for overly high expectations?
Imagination Designs