Monday, September 30, 2013

The Dinner: Gone Girl's European second cousin twice removed

I had this preconception that The Dinner was not a good book, and I will tell you why: It is loudly and aggressively touted as the “European Gone Girl.”

Look, I didn’t MIND Gone Girl. It was fine. But stop comparing everything that has printed words to Gone Girl just because you think it will make people buy it. That’s annoying. I already read that book. I don’t want to read that book again.

In the case of THIS book, it has maybe two things in common with Gone Girl. It has twice as many things in common with The Princess Bride.

That's not one of the things.

Also, trusted fellow book blogger Rayna was pleased but maybe a little underwhelmed, and other trusted book blogger Australian Kayleigh wasn't whelmed enough to write a review.

So WHY did I willingly step in as the 252nd person on the hold list at the library? Oh, I don’t know . . . can YOU resist a mysterious plot happening when it’s dangled in front of your face like a cheese doodle? WELL THEN, you’re a stronger person than I, sir or madam.

If you say to me, “And then this thing happens . . . but it’s kind of meh,” I will say to you, “WHAT WAS THE THING TELL ME THE THIIIIIIIING.” And no one would in this instance. So I had to read the damn book myself.

And you know what? I quite liked it.

When it starts out, the narrator is this sort of misanthropic, curmudgeonly Dutch guy who is really grumpy about going with his wife to meet this other couple for dinner. So for the first maybe 100 pages, I was imagining a Steve Coogan type snarking in my ear about waitresses with identical ponytails and plates with tiny, fancy food.
The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.
It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. "You wouldn’t even dare!" the plate said, and laughed in your face. (p. 43)
Just eat your tiny food and shush.

But this awkward dinner for four progresses through one course after another, and the subject matter—both in the narrator’s head and out loud at the dinner table—takes a turn for the decidedly darker and less comedic. And I liked that development, too.

You see, I have no hesitations about reading a book with no relatable or redeemable characters. And I think maybe that’s what people were keying in to when they started obsessively calling this the “European Gone Girl.” But it’s just not an accurate comparison. If it’s anything, it’s the European American Psycho.

Only if it's TINY sorbet.

It has a much more satirical lean than Gone Girl, and it definitely falls heavily into the realm of social commentary—AND other similarities that would be spoilers, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I will say, however, that this is not nearly as uncomfortable as American Psycho. It’s no picnic (except for the part where they eat food and stuff), but there are no starved rats or jumper cables, I assure you.

And as long as we’re comparing things to other things, I would also add that it has a dash of God of Carnage. Because the couples are meeting to discuss some shenanigans their sons have gotten up to, and there is much bickering.

Now . . . can I interest you in a cheese doodle?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: They put a bird on it

You guys know that animals rule my life, right? Because I can always post more dog pictures to every social media profile . . . if you need further clarification.

Well Birds of a Lesser Paradise is more or less a collection of stories expounding on the ways we do life (and death) with the furry and the feathered and the occasionally scaled. Or, more precisely, it’s about human relationships through the lens of our relationships with animals.

And...animals' relationships with animals.

A good amount of the stories deal in some way with motherhood, and most of them tend toward the morose. I don’t say that as a negative; I LIKE morose. But YOU might not like morose, and now you know that these stories are morose, which definitely doesn’t even sound like a real word at this point. Morose.

One of my favorite stories is one of the lighter ones. It’s called “Yesterday’s Whales,” and it’s about a couple who have just discovered that they’re pregnant. They are also outspoken proponents of voluntary extermination. That is, they think the only thing keeping the Earth from thriving is humans and so humans should do the honorable thing and stop breeding, letting themselves die out so nature has a fighting chance. And now that these two are breeding (albeit accidentally) . . . they’re just big, fat hypocrites.
I’ve been told self-righteous people always have it coming, that when you profess to understand the universe, the universe conspires against you. It gathers and strengthens and thunders down upon you like a biblical storm. It buries your face in humble pie and licks the cream from your nose because when the universe hates you, it really hates you. (p. 77)
I’m not saying I like this story the most because I enjoy to see the universe school self-righteous people. But I’m not NOT saying that, either. So.

My other favorite was “Every Vein a Tooth,” which is primarily about the ecstasy and the agony of inviting animals into your home.
That night, while I was watching Mr. Ed reruns, the raccoon crept onto the back of the couch and grabbed my necklace, snapping my head backward.
Rodent! I said.
Later, I found the retrievers licking plates in the open dishwasher.
Get! I said. Get out!
I was embarrassed by the desperate, angry sound of my voice.
Sam lowered his head, then raised his large brown eyes.
We are just being dogs, he seemed to say. (p. 179)

It’s not the MOST remarkable book I’ve ever read, but it speaks directly to my crazy-dog-lady heart, and I thought that was pretty swell. And I think there just might be something here that speaks to you, too. Unless you hate animals. In which case . . . the universe probably has something to say about that.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane . . . and the kittens in the garden

I’ve never tried to write in the voice of a 7-year-old boy, but I can’t imagine it's easy. And Neil Gaiman naaaailed it.
I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me, and I was certain, rock-solid unshakably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was. (p. 156)

He might BE a 7-year-old boy, currently.

This book captures in fewer than 200 pages the essence of childhood—how scary it is to be a tiny human in a world governed by full-sized humans (“When adults fight children, adults always win,” p. 87), and the poignancy of that moment in every child’s life when he or she learns that adults aren’t immune to human frailty (“Adults should not weep, I knew. They did not have mothers who would comfort them,” p. 123).

But there’s also magic. And it’s the kind of magic that only children can experience—the pee-your-Underoos, utterly terrifying kind . . . the kind that even parents (especially parents) can’t understand or protect you from.

This is the most darkly whimsical of his books that I’ve read up until now, and it probably fits best alongside the likes of Coraline. There is no Other Father with buttons for eyes. There is, however, a plain-old human father who lies about things that no one should ever lie about.
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. "Yum!" he’d say, and "Charcoal! Good for you!" and "Burnt toast! My favorite!" and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand. (p. 18)

It’s beautiful and compact—and 100% worth the possibility of developing a fear of white sheets flapping in a summer breeze.