Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

WIN_20150521_200052Somewhere along the way Herman Koch lost me.

Things started well.  A narrator who may or may not have killed the husband of the woman he is having an affair with.  This character, a doctor with a very dark view of the human race, cannot be fully trusted right from the start.  Does the man he kills deserve it?  Is there anyone we can really trust in the novel?  Even the children?

Readers of Herman Koch’s wildly successful novel The Dinner know full well that the answer is no, we cannot trust anyone in a Herman Koch novel.  But we can trust Herman Koch to entertain us even as he undermines everything we think we know about the world.

It all worked very well for over half of Summer House With Swimming Pool.  I liked the doctor/narrator even as he cheated on his wonderful wife.  The wives in Herman Koch novels really are very understanding people.  The doctor is also very good with this two daughters, so he is sympathetic.  Up to a point.

Actually, all the way through, even when he is cheating on his wife, even when he is killing his lover’s husband.  I know what he is doing is wrong, stupidly wrong, but I still felt for him.  To be honest, I even wanted him to kill the guy, a little.

This is why….

During a playful game of ping-pong, his lover’s husband threatens the narrator/doctor’s teenage daughter:

…He still pretended to be laughing, but it was no longer real–if it ever had been.  “And you, you’d really better watch your step!” he said.  As he said this he rose farther to his feet and pointed his index finger at my older daughter. At Julia.

Julia shrieked.  “No!” she screamed.  “No!”

And she grabbed hold of her red bottoms with both hands.  Her bikini bottoms.

I saw it quite clearly.  The gesture could be explained in only one way.  Ralph Meier was threatening my daughter with something.  He was threatening to do something. Something he had done before.  All as a joke.  All with a knowing wink.  But still.

This is a classic bit of Herman Koch creepiness.  I didn’t like Ralph before, but after this scene I was confidently in the narrator/doctor’s corner against him.

At 287 pages I would have loved Summer House with Swimming Pool.  At 287 pages it would have been a tautly written thriller with economic use of character development.  The twist would have come at just the right time to keep the pages flying by.   But at 387 pages…..things just go on too long….events take too long to happen….the characters grow annoying when they could have remained sympathetic…the twists lose their impact.

By the end I really wasn’t paying much attention.  I’m not exactly sure what happened.  Rather, I know what happened, I’m just not sure what the character’s motivations were.  Killing Ralph didn’t shock me or excite me the way the big finish in The Dinner Party did.

I was basically done with the book fifty pages before it finally ended.

 

Posted in Book Review, European Literature, Fiction, Noir, Novella, Thriller, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cassandra by Christa Wolfe

Cassandra has always struck me as the most tragic figure in the story of the Trojan War. Gifted with prophecy, she could see the future, she knew what would happen, but no one would believe her. It’s one thing to be doomed; it’s another to know you are doomed.

German author Christa Wolf retells the story of the Trojan War from Cassandra’s point of view in her novel Cassandra translated from the German by Jan Van Heurck. By telling the story this way, Ms. Wolf increases our understanding of the Trojan War. There are no heroics in Cassandra. When Cassandra witnesses a battle, she sees it from the point of view of a hapless victim not as a combatant. Because she is King Priam’s daughter, she has an insider’s view of court politics. What she witnesses is a war fought not for honor, but for economic reasons–control of the Bosporus Straits trade. She sees a shift in Trojan politics and culture from a more peaceful, matriarchal society to a society controlled by men, one that shuts out women from all positions of power.

But Christa Wolf’s most intriguing take on the Trojan War is her take on it’s cause, the kidnapping of Helen. In Homer’s version of the story, Helen of Troy, a beautiful young Greek girl who became the face that launched a thousand ships, was promised to Paris, a Trojan prince, by the goddess Aprhodite. She watched the war from the walls of Troy, despised by the Trojans as the cause of their suffering and despised by the Greeks for her betrayal of her father. In Cassandra, Helen is absent from the story altogether. She is taken from her father by Paris, but she is then taken from him by the King of Egypt when Paris stops there on his way to Troy. In order to save face, Paris and the men of the Trojan court, keep the second kidnapping of Helen a secret. When Paris docks his ships in Troy, he sends ashore a veiled woman. The men claim that Helen is too ill to receive visitors, so no one but Paris can see her. Weeks, and then months go by. Eventually, no one asks about Helen anymore. She is forgotten. The Greeks arrive to do battle with Troy and win Helen back; war between the two begins based entirely on deception. It’s clear that everyone knows about the lie by then, but no one stops the war once it has begun.

Sound familiar?

The Trojan War continues to be the source of great literature. Margaret Atwood’s recent novel The Penelopiad, which tells the story from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who famously fought off an army of suitors while waiting from him to return from the Trojan War, is a recent example. Cassandra, by Christa Wolf, proves that knowing the whole story before hand need not ruin it. At just under 150 pages, it’s possible to read the entire novel in two or three sittings which is good because novel is a page turner. You think you know the story of the Trojan War, but Cassandra’s insider view and the reinterpretation of the war’s underlying causes make for eye-opening reading. Knowing how the story ends, does not lessen the experience of reading Cassandra at all. She is the witness to the events who can tell us what really happened. It’s a fascinating and compelling read.

As was the case with Hans Fallada, author of Every Man Dies Alone, Christa Wolf’s biography is as interesting as her work. Born in what is now Poland in the late 1920’s, her family was expelled from their home after World War II and settled in what became East Germany. She became a literary scholar and critic, served briefly as an informant for the Stasis only to be criticised by them for her “reticence” and placed under surveillance for over 30 years. In spite of this she remained faithful to the ideals of Karl Marx and opposed German reunification. Cassandra is considered by many to be her most important work.

 

It’s been a while since I read Cassandra or anything else by Christa Wolfe.  I put several short pieces by her in my current deck for the Deal-Me-In Short Story Challenge, but it’s been a while since I dealt myself any cards.  I hope to remedy that situation this summer.  But I’ve signed up for so many art classes that reading may take a bit of a back seat for once.  

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Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay

People read novels for different reasons. One reason is escape. Thrillers have been helping their readers escape since the early days of the novel. Matthew “The Monk” Lewis, Wilke Collins, Charles Dickens, all knew how to keep their readers coming back for more by giving them thrills–keep them in suspense and they’ll keep turning pages. While a thriller can become a work of literature, most people who read thrillers read them not for art but for thrills.

Reviewing a book like Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay brings up the question I faced with Columbine— how to review it. Fear the Worst is an entertaining thriller that hits close enough to home to draw the reader in and keep the pages turning. Its goal is to tell a good story that keeps its readers entertained. To judge it by the same set of criteria used to judge a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or To the Lighthouse seems questionable. One is an apple, the other an orange.

Most good thrillers can be summed up in a line or two. In Fear the Worst the narrator’s teenage daughter does not come home for dinner one night. Weeks later he becomes a suspect in her disappearance and begins to discover how much trouble she was in. If you are a reader of thrillers, that’s probably all you need to know to decide if Fear the Worst is for you.

As a thriller, as an entertainment, Fear the Worst works. Before the daughter disappears, we come to know her and her father well and to like them and to be concerned about what happens to them. Just as the father, who narrates the book, can’t believe his daughter is involved in anything criminal neither can we. As the book continues, there are plenty of twists to keep us turning the pages while the father gets closer and closer to the truth about his daughter’s disappearance.

While good thriller does have well developed characters, it doesn’t spend much time on characterization. Mr. Barclay makes his characters distinctive individuals the way a good artist can convey a unique portrait with minimal use of paint. His characterization adds to the book while it never gets in the way of the plot. By the time the father/narrator has to take dramatic and violent action he has been through so much that his actions are no longer out of character as they would have been when the novel opened.

There are a few problems with Fear the Worst. In order for a non-police officer to solve a crime, we have to believe the actual police force is not capable or not willing. Or the person solving the crime must be so involved in it that he or she cannot go to the police for help. I think Mr. Barclay underestimates his police officer characters. If the level of ineptitude they display in Fear the Worst is accurate, then one has to ask how any crime ever gets solved. To say a book had you racing to find out what happens is to also say it had you skimming over parts of it so you could find out sooner. Fear the Worst did have me doing that. There were times when I felt the suspense generated was unearned, merely manipulation rather than actual tension. The father/narrator, who does not own a gun, is so good in the books climatic gun battle that he really should consider a career change and become a police officer himself. Finally, the plot tends to play fast and loose with the lives of the supporting characters while keeping the major players safe and sound. Some readers may prefer this, of course, those looking for escape, for example.

If you read for escape, and if thrills are the escape you seek, Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay should do the trick.

But what do you read for?

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.  My copy of Fear the Worst was an ARC.  I gave full disclosure at the time and I’m giving it now.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have no memory of this book at all.  Though it does sound like a pretty good summer read.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday Salon: The Do-It-Yourself Art Edition

mailart033I hope I can avoid making this one of those “should I keep blogging” posts.  I understand it when people do them.  We do often, or from time to time, wonder if we should keep blogging.  But after doing this for almost a decade, seven or eight years, I’ve lost track, I’ve read enough of them.

You should keep blogging if you are enjoying it.  If you’re not enjoying it anymore then you should stop.

Simple enough.

So, I haven’t posted much at all in the past two weeks.  I haven’t read much either.

I’ve been making art. Or “art”.   I used to be heavily into book arts–book binding, altered books, artists books, artist trading cards and mail art.   I moved out of it a couple of years ago, not for any particular reason.  I tend to dive into things head first, swim around for a couple of years and then move on to another pool.

But, sometimes I go back.

This year a couple of my colleagues and I have been taking a lot of art centered professional development.  We started with Saturday morning workshops at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.  These classes for teachers feature a look at a current exhibit and the history behind it followed by a hands-on art activity you can possibly use with your students.

The last one was perfect for making mail-art.

I’ve also been taking a course on integrating arts into the classroom and I’ve gotten my principal to pay for a couple of classes at the San Francisco Center for the Book.

So, the art bug has bit again.

I’m not very good at it, I have no real talent for drawing which is a big handicap even when doing book binding.  But I can bluff my way through by using collage, so I get by.

Scissors and glue sticks rule!!!!

Which means that there may not be as many book reviews posted here as there used to be, but I will keep on running this little blog.  I still enjoying going to the coffee shop for a mocha and a couple of hours writing reviews.

And I still enjoy reading reviews on Sunday mornings, my Sunday paper substitute.

 

 

P.S. If you’d like a piece of mail-art, send me your snail mail address. Be sure to put mail-art request in the subject line.  Send requests to jamesbchester@comcast.net.

 

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Columbine by Dave Cullen

I need a new set of criteria to review Columbine by Dave Cullen. It’s something much more than true-crime; a true-crime book about Columbine would be in very bad taste. It’s not a non-fiction novel like In Cold Blood, though Mr. Cullen uses novelistic devices throughout. Though gripping, it’s purpose is not to entertain. What is the purpose of a book like Columbine? Why study this piece of American history? What can we learn from it?

In Columbine Mr. Cullen presents as complete and accurate a picture of what happened before, during and after the massacre at Columbine High School on April 19, 1999 as we are likely to get for a very long time. (Some evidence is still sealed; some witnesses still have not granted interviews.) Whatever there is to learn from this tragedy, if anything, can be learned from reading Columbine.

Mr. Cullen structures Columbine in three main alternating parts. The events of April 19, 1999 are described in detail in the opening and closing sections of the book. I was struck by how much the media got wrong in its quest for instant and constant coverage on the day of the shootings. Mr. Cullen demonstrates just how unreliable eye-witness testimony can be, so much so that I will forever doubt it even when it is my own. Yet the media relied on eye-witness testimony from traumatized high school students who were sometimes simply repeating misinformation they had heard on television and radio moments earlier. As a result several myths became widely believed: the shooters were bullied outsiders without friends, the shooters were part of a trench coat mafia, the shooters were gay, the shooters were fans of Goth music, the shooters targeted minority students, the shooters targeted jocks, the shooters targeted Christians. None of these were true.

Mr. Cullen alternates his account of April 19 with an analysis of how the two shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, came to be mass murderers. By learning how this happened future tragedies can be prevented, some argue. It is clear from Columbine that Harris was the leader of the two. Mr. Cullen traces explores the work of Dr. Dwayne Fuselier who spent years studying Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold through their journals, homemade video tapes, court and medical records and the testimony of those who knew them. That Eric Harris was a psychopath comes as no surprise, but just what that entails is not widely known. Psychopaths are not typically violent. They have no emotional guilt or empathy for others, their goal is to manipulate those around them, but this only rarely results in violence. There is no effective treatment for psychopaths. In fact, treatment may be a way for psychopaths to become better at concealing the fact that they are psychopaths because it helps them learn how to fake being normal. While Eric Harris’s mental illness led him to kill, Dylan Klebold’s made him suicidal. No one knew the full extent of their conditions until afterwards. Both boys were in treatment programs as a result of an earlier arrest; both appeared to be doing well.

The third alternating part of Columbine is the aftermath–what happened during the criminal investigation, how the survivors and their families tried to recover and how the nation reacted. The people involved were all average people, put in the media spotlight through tragedy and without preparation. Mr. Cullen gives them their fair due. He does not make anyone a hero, nor does he demonize anyone. He presents a well researched, well written version of events.

In the end we come back to the question of what can be learned from this piece of history? Some say that it is not just dangerous to forget the past, it is rude. The job of history is to remember as well as to teach. I did not find any lessons in Columbine. Anti-bullying programs would not have prevented it; Harris and Klebold were not bullied. Eliminating social isolation would not have helped; neither boy was isolated socially. There is some comfort to be found in blaming the boys’ parents, but they both came from solid two parent families with actively involved mothers and fathers who saw that they needed help and got it for them. The police knew of things they did not act on, the boys did use the gun show loop-hole in the Brady bill to buy weapons, there were a few violent essays that raised concern with their English teachers, but there was no one person or one group who knew all the pieces of the puzzle, no one in a position to see the whole picture. Could some one person have done more? The answer to that questions is always yes. With so little to learn, history can only remember.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  

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