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Herman Koch’s “The Dinner”

The American Library Association’s Notable Books List (for adults) was announced Sunday, January 26. It includes “The Dinner” by Herman Koch, a contemporary novel first published in the Netherlands in 2009, now available in English.

 The action happens during a dinner at a high-end Amsterdam restaurant. Two brothers and their wives are gathering to discuss their sons. The narrator, one of the brothers, seems to poke fun at every aspect of the restaurant’s style, food, and service. He’s an unemployed teacher, his brother a candidate for prime minister of the country. Slowly we learn that their sons may be responsible for a death. The dinner conversation will address what comes next. In almost comic ways, the dinner is interrupted by telephone calls, trips to the restroom, and other extended absences. The story takes a sharp turn when the narrator reveals his own history of mental illness and violence, building the bridge to events that grow out of control. Koch seems to be almost calling a bluff with violence, probing what can happen when the stakes are that high. It puts the sons’ alarming behavior in an even more alarming context. I couldn’t stop reading, a testimony to Koch’s plotting and pacing.

 Some of the scenes struck me as completely harrowing, partly due to the contrast with the initial setting in the overly civilized restaurant. I appreciated how Koch allowed the narrator’s tone to move from humorous though begrudging to almost monstrous. Looking back, I salute Koch for so deftly combining civilization, humor and violence, thus heightening the impact of all. The references to Tolstoy’s quote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” remind the reader that this is a distinctive family indeed.

 I recommend this to book groups, readers of suspense, and others who seek books that plumb extreme behavior. The classic book discussion issues of how children are raised, how far parents will go to protect them, how mental illness shapes behavior, and how families communicate are all right here. And more.

“Longbourn” by Jo Baker

I learned about “Longbourn: a Novel” by Jo Baker when a friend posted about it on Facebook. She wrote, “Just finished the best book I have read in months, ‘Longbourn.’ Read it immediately. It will fill you with joy.” And Voila! I was perusing the New Books display at Bennett Martin Library, and there it was. It contributed to one of my favorite things–a weekend when I started AND finished a book.

 “Longbourn” might be described as “Pride and Prejudice” as experienced by the household staff. Jo Baker takes the skeleton of events from “Pride and Prejudice” but writes a totally separate, stands-on-it-own story. Its primary focus is Sarah, a young housemaid who came into service from the orphanage. She comes across as practical, competent, and intelligent. Once a new footman joins the staff, we see how she learns for love. Her awareness of the limitations of her situation grows as she finds herself wanting more than a life of laundering, scrubbing, and emptying chamber pots. Baker’s spot-on depiction of the stress of difficult work, done with only the family’s good will as job security, keeps the story from growing saccharine.

 I was struck by how well Baker portrayed realistic misunderstandings as people get to know each other romantically. She impressed me when one of the contenders for Sarah’s affection shows himself to be a much better man than we expected. Overall, I admired how she gathered together the household staff and created a family of them under the wing of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper. It rang true when sometimes their life together seemed claustrophobic in how closely they work with and observe each other.

 I’m not sure this book needs to be recommended since it can ride on the coattails of the always popular Jane Austen and currently popular  “Downton Abbey.” Even so, I will recommend it to readers who will appreciate the quality Jo Baker instilled here. Her writing doesn’t try to be Jane Austen’s, but might be described as of the period.

 Aside from a few quibbles about some anachronistic social views, I agree with my friend. “Read it immediately. It will fill you with joy.”

“O Pioneers!”

Among my 2013 New Year’s resolutions was to re-read Willa Cather. I began by listening to the audiobook of “Song of the Lark” during a road trip to Colorado in July. My trip ended before the book did, and for days I invented errands around town so that I could hear more.

 Over the holidays, I took home the scholarly edition of “O Pioneers!” published by the University of Nebraska Press. I just got to it, and experienced one of my favorite things–starting and finishing a novel over one weekend.

 Originally published in 1913, “O Pioneers!” centers on Alexandra Bergson, who comes to the great plains of Nebraska when her family arrives from Sweden to homestead. She becomes a prominent and successful farmer in her own right, persuading her brothers to stay with the land in very hard times, eventually enjoying the fruits of their courage and persistence. Although the land itself counts as a restless character, the small circle of people in Alexandra’s orbit creates a whirl of drama. Her college-educated younger brother falls in love with a married woman in the neighborhood. Alexandra’s rekindled friendship with a childhood playmate troubles her stolid older brothers. Tragedy happens.

 Two things in particular struck me in this reading. One is Cather’s attention to shaping the various characters, especially the immigrant farmers and families, in ways that confer respect. Second is her use of straightforward language, the voice of a well-spoken and thoughtful narrator, as if one who grew up feeling some affection for all of these people, is telling the story.

 Although my own homesteading ancestors grew up in the United States, I feel an automatic kinship with the pioneer story. I can’t read this book without that background hovering. I’m curious how others experience it.

 On another personal note, the late Susan J. Rosowski was one of the editors of this scholarly edition, along with Charles W. Mignon. I took one course from Professor Rosowski at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and recall her passion for Cather, as well as her kindness to her students. I don’t quite remember how my late husband and I happened to attend an event at Rosowki’s home when Joan Acocella, a writer for the New Yorker was visiting Nebraska. Acocella’s expertise is dance, but she has developed a passion for Willa Cather. On this evening, Acocella made an informal presentation on the course of Cather’s reputation over the years, deftly weaving social and political history with literary considerations. Acocella eventually wrote a book on the topic, “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism.” She also wrote a very recent blog piece on the 100th anniversary of “O Pioneers!” (spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book), a readable essay that combines literary passion with muscular writing. Read it. And then go read “O Pioneers!”

“The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride

I chose “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride because it won the 2013 National Book Award, and because I so enjoyed his memoir, “The Color of Water.”

 This novel is narrated in dialect by Henry Shackleford, a young slave who is freed by John Brown, then taken in as a member of Brown’s close band of followers, in the years leading up to Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The twist is that Brown at first believes that Henry is female, and thus begin Henry’s years of dressing and living as a girl.

Sunday’s Lincoln Journal Star (January 5, 2014) included a review of this book by Los Angeles Times reviewer, Hector Tobar. He noted the awkward feeling of the droll, absurd, and funny story resting on the serious history of racism and the fight against slavery. I sensed this same irony, even as I enjoyed McBride’s ability to turn a phrase and reveal sly humor. Describing a prostitute’s flower dress, he writes, “that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas.”

 “Henrietta” exemplifies the slave necessary of seldom showing his/her true self. She has much to hide. Henrietta realizes the outsider she is, a very pale former slave with no status, yet considered a good luck charm.

 The intriguing title is a colloquial reference to the ivory billed woodpecker, a remarkable bird of the southeastern American forests, now considered most likely extinct. Its distinctive feathers play a role in the story.

 I recommend this to people who like to stay on top of annual book prize winners, and generally to those who enjoy rich language. Key to its enjoyment is the reader’s willingness to set aside expectations about how a novel based on such serious events OUGHT to be, and go along for this ride of cleverness and apparent shallowness. Truth is, some pretty deep thoughts lie below that surface. McBride concludes this novel with a brief meditation by Henry on the trees eventually felled by creatures such as the good lord bird, “that it would someday fall and feed the others.” Sounds like John Brown himself.

“Gaudy Night” by Dorothy L. Sayers

I often re-read classics or “oldies-but-goodies” over the holidays. This year, I found myself absorbed in “Gaudy Night: a Lord Peter Wimsey Novel” by renowned British mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. Written and set in 1935, it has more of Harriet Vane, successful mystery writer, and less of Lord Peter, aristocratic amateur detective and Renaissance man, than her other mysteries.

 The title refers to a reunion event at Harriet’s college (deliciously named Shrewsbury), modeled on the women’s college at Oxford. It is just a few years since the notorious case involving Harriet’s lover’s death by arsenic. While at Shrewsbury, she receives a poison pen letter, and comes across another ominous communication. Later she is invited back to investigate ongoing alarming behaviors among the all-female faculty, students, and staff. Although Lord Peter’s secret work for the British government has him away on the continent, eventually he joins up with Harriet and the mystery is solved.

 The character of Harriet Vane is generally considered an autobiographical depiction of Sayers, who completed degree requirements at Oxford in the years before women were granted degrees there. In “Gaudy Night,” discussions of women’s education go on and on, as do reflections on the impact of education on women’s fitness for marriage and motherhood, and consideration of of the degree to which a woman’s scholarly rigor would hold up against her personal loyalties. Some consider this the first feminist mystery.

 Sayers’ own classical education is much on display, with Latin phrases sprinkled throughout, and quotes from classical authors introducing each chapter. Her writing is both lovely and lively; she seems to enjoy poking fun at convention. The incipient romance between Harriet and Lord Peter adds emotional energy to the already charged atmosphere, even as they conform to academic and societal proprieties.

 A thin thread in the story refers to events in Germany at this time, particular eugenics and the role of women there, topics addressed in a book I recently finished, “Hitler’s Furies.”

 As I was reading “Gaudy Night,” I sensed the datedness of some of the discussions, and wasn’t sure that it had aged well. But as I’ve reflected on it further, I’ve realilzed how unresolved and relevant many of the issues remain. I recommend “Gaudy Night” to mystery fans, and to students of popular writing or feminism.