Unapologetic: Dear Mr M

I’ve read The Dinner twice. It’s one of the only contemporary books that I’ve ever re-read.

I really liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. I have an immense appreciation for Herman Koch’s unapologetic writing style.

And I’m not alone:

Stephen King totally gets Herman Koch.

Aside from the fact that Koch has actually written eight novels – only three of them have been translated into English. Dear Mr M is the latest.


M, a writer, is long past his glory days. Years ago, his novel Payback, was a bestseller. It told the tale of teenaged lovers who offed their teacher after the teacher wouldn’t leave the girl alone. It was based on a real-life mystery that was never solved – the teacher’s body was never found. M’s downstairs neighbour has taken an intense interest in M’s life, finally figuring out a way to get to speak with him about more than just the weather.

This is a story about how decisions we make shape our lives. It’s about an author at the end of his career who doesn’t want to play the role of elder statesman anymore.

I was totally blindsided by the end of this book.

I will admit that there were times where I wondered where this was all going but the payoff! Oh the payoff was good. Koch’s unapologetic writing style is intact – there were actual moments where I was like “this guy! Who does he think he is?” It always takes me a minute to separate the author from the characters when I read Koch’s work – I always wonder where the line is, how much of what is written is the view of its creator? No one is safe – not readers, women, teachers, students, the young, the old, the Dutch, all are subject to the Koch Treatment.

I dogeared so many pages – and I never dog ear pages. But I wanted to be able to go back and read some of his passages. There are whole sections of the book dedicated to writing and readers and what it’s like to be an author and anyone that reads as much as I do will find that so fascinating. A kind of author’s inception. Koch’s writing is so clear eyed, his prose so spare in making points that make you go “huh.” More than any other author, I wonder what it’s like to have a conversation with Herman Koch, to have him come to dinner.

This book challenged me, it forced me to confront uncomfortable truths about people and stories and life. I wasn’t totally aware of what was happening the whole time but when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it and couldn’t wait to get back to it.

I leave you with a few quotes from the book about books and reading:

A reader reads a book. If it’s a good book, he forgets himself. That’s all a book has to do. When the reader can’t forget himself and keeps having to think about the writer the whole time, the book is a failure. That has nothing to do with fun. If it’s fun you’re after, buy a ticket for a roller coaster.

He has never understood why people would want to borrow a book. […] He himself finds it filthy, a borrowed book. […] A book with wine spots and a crushed insect between the pages, with grains of sand from the last reader’s holiday falling out as you read.

We shouldn’t want to force anyone to read, just as little as we should want to force people to go to the movies, listen to music, have sex, or consume alcoholic beverages. Literature doesn’t belong in a secondary school. No, it belongs on the list of things I just mentioned. The list that includes sex and drugs, all the things that give us pleasure without any external coercion. A required reading list! How dare we!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. Any errors in quoting are due to coming from an unfinished version of the book.


Getting to know Herman Koch a little better

A lot of people come across my blog by googling Herman Koch and his work Summer House with Swimming Pool. Most come here looking for definitive answers to the ending of that book.

I don’t have all the answers. That’s kind of what I love about his books – they don’t have clear cut endings, you have to decide for yourself. A bit like life.

But I thought that maybe if we got to know Herman Koch better, his work would make more sense?

In that spirit, here are some interviews I found with Herman Koch: (I should point out that I only collected pieces that were mostly about Summer House with Swimming Pool and that were in English)

So. What do you think? Does his writing make more sense? Are you worse off than you were before?


Unlikeable Narrators: Summer House With Swimming Pool

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Random House of Canada in return for an honest review.

There seems to be an appetite amongst readers these days for books that deal with unlikeable narrators.

I’m not complaining. An imperfect, kind of horrible narrator makes for an interesting read. We were all introduced to Dutch author’s Herman Koch’s work through the terrifyingly brilliant The Dinner. Just in time for summer we have Summer House With Swimming Pool.

summer house

Marc is a doctor. His practice is mostly made up of artistic folks: writers, actors and artists who drink too much and visit him for prescriptions that will help with the side effects of drinking too much. He thinks he is better than his patients. When we first meet Marc, a patient of his, the famous actor Ralph Meier, has just died after a brief illness. Marc is supposed to go in front of the Medical Board because there is the possibility that there was some negligence that accelerated the illness.

As he ponders the possible decision of the Medical Board, he goes back through the last 18 months of his life – to the night when he and his wife went to an opening night of Ralph’s play; to the night of the first invitation to look in on them at their vacation home; to the night of the fireworks. Marc tells us how things came to be the way that they are, while waxing poetic about the foibles of men and women.

Like in The Dinner, the blanks of the present day are filled in with the narrator’s remembrances of days gone by. The characters are also cast in the same vein as Koch’s other book: I can’t think of one character that’s really likeable. And while I can’t say that I personally connected with any of the characters, I can say that I really enjoyed the ride.

There are so many twists and turns in this story. You think you have it figured out and you think that the rest of the book will just carry on in this same vein but Koch isn’t finished yet. I found that Marc’s relationship with the women in his life, his two daughters on the verge of womanhood, his wife Caroline who gets frustrated with his permanent role as the good guy, Ralph’s wife Judith who irritates and fascinates him equally, changes throughout the book. He has to decide what he’s going to be to each woman, how he’s going to react to the things that happen to them – will he act like society expects him to or will he give in to the animal instincts that his medical school professor was always going on about?

I really like Koch’s unapologetic style of writing. He seems to say “if you don’t like this, I don’t care. It’s my story.” And I agree that it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you can get into it, I personally think it’s a thought-provoking read that’s sure to start a discussion with fellow readers.


Book Club Pick: The Dinner

I just finished reading The Dinner for the second time.

I think this is one of the first times that I’ve re-read a modern book. I re-read Austen or Bronte all the time, but a modern novel? That doesn’t happen very often.

I first read Herman Koch’s The Dinner last summer. I had heard great things about it; it was hailed as the European Gone Girl. It had recently been translated from the original Dutch and takes place in Amsterdam- there was no way I wasn’t going to read this.

So I read it last summer and then I had no one to talk it over with. Months later, I hosted book club and as the ladies were perusing my bookshelves, The Dinner was taken down and I couldn’t help gushing about how great it was, how messed up and that I had wanted to talk it over with someone ever since. But no one had read it.

It became our next book club book.

I think I enjoyed it more the first time. But only because the first time, in an effort to take in the whole story and all the characters, I was only able to do a surface read. The second time, I was able to understand the characters better, and I didn’t love them.

the dinner

Paul and Claire Lohman are on their way to have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. The couples are having dinner (at a fancy Amsterdam restaurant) to discuss their two teenage boys, Michel and Rick. The boys have clearly done something but you don’t know what it is until about half way through the book. Paul arrives at the restaurant ready to pick a fight – he’s annoyed that he has to pay 10 euros for an appertif after the manager makes it sound like it’s on the house. His brother, Serge, waltzes in like he owns the place. He is the favoured candidate in the ongoing Dutch election which further complicates their relationship.

Over dinner the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. Paul remembers the past 11 years by revisiting significant moments: the time his employer suggested he see a psychiatrist, the time his wife was in the hospital for a significant amount of time and Serge and Babette came by to take Michel to stay with them, the time his son came home and told him about the neighbour down the street that invited the boys on the block to come into this home and listen to records.

As the story unravels and you sort of realize what Paul is (as the narrator, Paul refuses to ever go into specifics because that stuff is private and he doesn’t understand why everyone has to make everything so public all the time) and what his son has done, the story shifts to how best to handle it. Paul and his brother have very different ideas of what the next steps should be.

I remember reading it the first time and kind of agreeing with Paul about what the best way to handle his son’s future was. This time I was horrified by it and was hard pressed to find a redeeming character in the whole thing. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it the second time – I did. It just means that this reading experience was really different from the first one and that surprised me.

One thing is for sure – this little novel packs a big punch leaving us with loads to discuss at book club next time.

PS The Dinner was recently released in paperback.


Waiting It Out: Paperbacks

I have been waiting all year for the 5th book in the Buckshaw Chronicles to come out in paperback. I started buying the books in paperback and they are so good looking sitting side by side in the same format, that I’m doomed to have to wait it out each time a new volume is released. The fifth book, Speaking from Among the Bones did the paperback thing on Tuesday.

I went on Tuesday to collect a copy for myself. But I couldn’t find it anywhere and since I was on a time crunch, I figured I’d just come back the next day (one of the perks/curses of working near a bookstore – I can always come back the next day). Wednesday found me back in the bookstore searching and searching and searching, circling around the store with zero luck until I happened upon a store employee who took pity on me and helped me out. They did have paperbacks of the book but they were still in the box in the back! 

She went back and minutes later came out with her arms full of brand new, never-been-touched, fresh-out-the-box copies of Speaking from Among the Bones paperbacks. And then I got to choose one.


Book nerd glory.

Since the season of giving is upon us and some of us really do wait for paperback versions of our favourite books to come out, I thought I would run down a couple of my personal paperback favourites that have just been released.

The Dinner by Herman Koch. I actually already own this in the hardcover format but I see that it has just come out in paperback and that’s excellent news for my book club as this is our next selection. Two brothers and their wives go out for dinner one summer night in Amsterdam to discuss their teenaged sons’ recent activities. Tension runs just below the surface of the meal at a fancy restaurant until the whole thing blows up. I can’t wait to read this again and then get to talk about it. It is twisted and uncomfortable and oh so current.

One of the best books I read this year (and possibly that I’ve ever read), Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. This book is massive and if paperback had been available earlier this year, I might have gone for it. Would have saved myself some neck pain. This book is incredible. Whether you have children or not, this book forces you to take a closer look at what it means to be human. Often it is a tough book to read, I personally had a really hard time with the chapter about children conceived in rape, but I think it’s an incredibly important one.

J.K. Rowling’s fans were heavily divided on The Casual Vacancy but if you were waiting for the paperback version before you got in on the debate, wait no more. I really liked this book – it was different from Harry Potter but that was the whole point. Rowling proved that she is a gifted storyteller no matter the genre and the end? The end was one of the most spectacular endings I’ve ever experienced.

Finally, if you’re on the Buckshaw Chronicles wagon and adore Flavia de Luce (and if you’ve read any of the books, you do), the 6th book (The Dead in their Vaulted Arches) is released (in hardcover, boo) in January. So next fall I will be all over that paperback!