Book Review: This Is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper

You think you have all the time in the world, and then your father dies. You think you’re happily married, and then your wife fucks your boss. You think your brother is an asshole, and then you discover that it’s been you all along. If nothing else, it’s been educational.’

Life’s not going too great for Judd Foxman. He’s just walked in on his wife having sex with another man in their marital bed. This other man is his boss. To top it off his dad has just died and he, along with his hilariously dysfunctional family, has to go back to his family home and sit shiva for seven days.

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Is this not one of the funniest opening paragraphs to a book?

This is, hands down, a major contender for my favourite book of 2012 (read it last month, don’t know what took me forever to write this review). Jonathan Tropper is a casually brilliant author and this is a book that I simply did not want to end. The humour is of a dark black variety and I just could not get enough. The dialogue and comic timing are just perfect; I don’t think there’s anyone else who can do it like him. I know that’s a pretty big claim to make, but I’d like someone to prove me wrong and introduce me to a writer who’s funnier than he is.

So the Foxmans are a funny bunch, with ‘a patented inability to express emotion during watershed events.’ From the very first ‘ass-numbing day of greeting visitors at crotch level’ we quickly learn that they simply do not get along, and perhaps ‘should all just face reality and stop taking [their] meals together’.

We have the oldest brother, Paul, who Judd gets along fine with ‘as long as we don’t spend any time together’; sister Wendy: incredibly cynical and jaded mother of three with a husband who’s too busy bothering about hedge funds and himself to actively participate in the mourning of his father-in-law, and Paul, the youngest of the bunch, who has cemented his place as the family fuck up (‘you’d have to wake up pretty early in the morning to find a drug he hasn’t done or a model he hasn’t fucked.) They are ’emotionally inarticulate’ with major communication issues (‘In my family, we don’t so much as air our grievances as wallow in them. Anger and resentment are cumulative.’), which is funny because their mother is an (inappropriately dressed – read slutty) incredibly liberal and outspoken celebrity psychologist.

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The chapters are split into the seven days of shiva and are laced with flashback scenes from significant moments in Judd’s life. The depiction of a marriage in decline is painfully accurate where at first, Judd and his wife Jen ‘knew marriage could be difficult in the same way that [they] knew there were starving children in Africa. It was a tragic fact but worlds away from [their] reality’, but before they know it, standard and perfunctory ‘his-and-hers orgasms [are being] distributed like party favours.’

And now I have no wife, no child, no job, no home, or anything else that would point to a life being lived with any success. I may not be old, but I’m too old to have this much nothing.’

When speaking of his boss that’s sleeping with his wife, Judd says ”Wade could not get enough pancreatic cancer to satisfy me.” Whilst you’re sniggering away at the deadpan darkness of this comment, it’s followed by the heart-breaking, ‘It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are.’ So despite the wisecracks and often relentless sarcasm, Tropper punches you with these heartfelt moments:

You never know when it will be the last time you’ll see your father, or kiss your wife, or play with your little brother, but there’s always a last time. If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.’

The honesty of that statement just pierces you for an instant. In the midst of this confused collection of troubled people (‘You need GPS to follow the sex lives of this family’) and all the hilarity, Jonathan Tropper makes some really insightful observations about humanity, about life in general and about the hard hitting nature of truth. Looking at his sister, Wendy, Judd says:

Now she’s a mother and wife who tries to get her screaming baby to sleep through the night, tries to stop her boys from learning curse words, and calls romantic love useless. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see your siblings as the people they’ve become. Maybe that’s why we all stay away from each other as a matter of course.’

Despite, and maybe even because of the Foxman’s buried resentments and permanent scars, there is a twisted love that peaks it’s head after eight tequila shots. An honesty that can bring together the drifting parts and start to mend the fragments of this broken family. Though they’ll probably never be the Bradys in terms of sincerity, you can’t help but think that their version, which is ‘awkward and vague’ at best, is actually better, because ‘even under the best of circumstances, there’s just something so damn tragic about growing up.’

I can honestly say that the humour in this book is effortless, it just flies off the page and I’m in no way surprised that it’s being made into a film (Jason Bateman to be Judd, apparently). Despite his success, I think Jonathan Tropper is underrated. People need to be obsessing with his work more. I can’t recommend this highly enough. And when you’re done, try ‘How To Talk To A Widower’, cuz that’s also effing brilliant. And this is where I leave you….(sorry, had to).

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Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Meet Paul Lohman; he is your narrator. He has arranged to have dinner at a posh (and overpriced) restaurant in Amsterdam along with his wife, Claire, his sister-in-law Babette, and her husband Serge; Paul’s older brother (a shoe-in to be the next Prime Minister of Holland) whom he detests. It’s all very civilised, except they’re not there to exchange niceties and the banalities of life. Each couple has a 15-year-old son who, together, have committed a horrific crime that was caught on camera and is now being looped on the evening news. The nation is both horrified and outraged and the images are too grainy to be able to identify the culprits. But they’re not too grainy for the Lohmans: Paul recognises his son Michel, and Serge, his son Rick. They need to act fast.

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This book is very subtly shocking. It’s not dramatic, yet in a way it is. As the cover states, it shows how far people will go to protect their loved ones, and through this, we learn about the nature of evil, about nature verses nurture and we examine to what extent we can blame parents for the misdeeds of their children. I’m not surprised if you’re right now thinking that’s sooo ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, but it’s actually not. Although I’ll admit to buying it because I thought it would indeed be another Shriver type book (I’m all over that kinda sh*t as you can see in my review of ‘The Good Father’).

The Dinner Courses

The Dinner Courses

The book is split into the five tedious and overtly fussy courses at this pretentious restaurant: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, digestif. I thought Koch did a tremendous job capturing the pomp of the restaurant, and the ridiculousness of the Head waiter, and food is indeed central to the structure of the story.

Through his disdain of all the arrogance and pretention of this restaurant and his assessment of his brother and his wife, Paul gets you on his side from the get go. But then he slowly appears to unravel the horrifying layers, all the way down to the kernel of shocking truth. As the narrative progresses we learn of new secrets and we begin to question our alliance with Paul. You question everything he has told you until now, whether he really is in a position to pass moral judgement.

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To go into further detail would spoil ‘The Dinner’ for those of you who are yet to read it so all I’ll say is that this book examines the effects of violence and what extent people will go to protect those they love.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Are our obligations only meant for our families, or do they extend to the wider good of humanity? This book also poses some very interesting questions about the nature of victimhood and that of the perpetrator, and also of course, about parenthood. The one small negative I have that I can actually tell you about is that the book was initially written in Dutch and has been translated into English. This was quite obvious to me in the beginning as the text felt a bit odd and stilted, but by the second and third chapters it had evened out and read a lot more evenly.

This is definitely the kind of book to be discussed at length, a book that can be quite divisive, and will help you learn a lot about your friends by the way in which they respond to the questions that arise. It is a novel that ends in a way that troubled me and has stayed with me for the past week since I’ve finished it. Read it so we can talk about it. If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts on the ending?? How would you react if these were your children in trouble?

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Book Review: What They Do In the Dark [will forever baffle you] by Amanda Coe

What They Do In The Dark – Amanda Coe

This is a very difficult book to review. To do so properly would mean having to reveal the ending, which would spoil the book for any potential reader as, I suppose, the way in which the story unfolds is what makes it all the more intriguing.

Having said this, I’m not sure if having a shocking conclusion galvanises the entire story into goodness. I’m not sure the ending is enough. For much of the time I was reading this book, I didn’t know what it was I was reading, where the story was going. You’ll find that any review of this book you may come across, including the blurb itself, is deliberately vague. I personally feel that this prevents you from anchoring your thoughts properly and therefore your reading becomes less focused.

Before I carry on, I should say that I actively despise this book cover. Horrendous choice. Just thought I should put that out there.

This book is about two young girls living in northern England (Yorkshire) in the 1970s. One, Gemma, lives a fairly privileged middle class life and the other, Pauline, lives in squalor amongst family members who barely register her existence. Into this story enters Lallie, a child film star who Gemma is obsessed with and whose new movie is being filmed on location at Gemma and Pauline’s school. Rude and unkempt, Pauline is a product of her surroundings, and Gemma, her mother’s child, is a pig-tailed picture of manners. An unlikely pair, a relationship of bare tolerance develops between the two, resulting in consequences that no one sees coming.

There is abuse in this book (I thought I’d help you frame your reading with this little bit of contextual information); different kinds of abuse, but abuse nonetheless. Experienced by all three girls. This is alluded to without being presented outright, which is all the more reason why the explicitness of the ending comes as even more of a shock. And the ending is the least predictable one I have ever come across. I was so troubled by it that I had to actually put the book down for minutes at a time, unable to finish a particularly disturbing sentence.

This book really made me ponder the fragility of a child’s mind, how malleable it is. How impressionable. How a child’s process of rationalisation can be so off key. How one, small decision can alter the lives of many forever. How you will never know what one is capable of doing in the dark.

Book Review: The Grief of Others – Leah Hager Cohen

I first started reading this whilst lying on South Beach in Miami. Strange, I know. A book titled The Grief of Others isn’t the most holiday-friendly book, and reading it in my light-hearted surroundings did feel a little wrong, so I stopped. And then I lost my David Sedaris book (still mad about that), so was stuck with the crap that I seem to have accumulated on my kindle.

The Grief of Others – a beach read??

Once I was back in London, it took me a while to pick it up again, and there’s something about coming back to a book after you’ve abandoned it for a while that makes it even harder to start reading the second time, but I soon got into it.

I have to admit that it’s the cover of this book that drew me in: a little house with lit windows placed inside a glass jar. Very striking, absolutely love it.

This book charts the life of a family, one year after the sad death of their baby who died only 57 hours after he was born. The Ryries appear to be falling apart at the seams, each member of the family trapped inside the glass jar of their own sadness, unable to share their loss with one another. They never mention the child’s name or even acknowledge that they need to mourn him.

Parents John and Ricky struggle to keep things going, and though the routine of everyday life brings a certain normalcy to their lives, (‘Daily business, if not a balm, was at least a broth in which they’d been swept up and eddied along’), ‘their marriage was a broken body laid out on the bed between them’. Their struggle centres on a secret that Ricky has been harbouring, and once revealed, their entire relationship is brought into question. In this mess are their two older children, Paul and Elizabeth (nicknamed Biscuit), each neglected and acting out in their own way.

The unexpected arrival of John’s older daughter Jess reminds the family of a summer camping holiday they took eight years ago when they had first met her. Having not seen her since, Jess serves as a reminder of happier times and of what they once were.

The Grief of Others – Leah Hager Cohen

The book is certainly slow in places, and at about three quarters of the way through, I did get a little bit bored. We spend so much time in the heads of these characters, understanding how they feel, and as a result the narrative pace suffers because there is too much thought and not enough action. Having said this, Cohen really gets into the minds of these characters and she does build a truly realistic psychological portrait of a grieving family, and allows us to understand how our own personal tragedies can help us to fully comprehend the loss and heartbreak of others: ‘as if by possessing a fuller understanding of the complexities of loss, she could not help experiencing more particularly the losses of others.’

Despite its flaws I would still recommend this book, because at its best it’s really fragile and beautiful. And if you’re not convinced, I would suggest reading just the three and a half pages of the prologue because that is an example of truly exceptional writing.

The Sadness that comes with Cake – Aimee Bender

I’ve just spent the better part of the last two days reading Aimee Bender’s ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’. The quirky title is what lured me in, and I can honestly say that it’s been a while since I’ve been so wrapped up in a story that a book becomes unputdownable (hence why I haven’t posted here in some time). This book has left me intrigued, confused and undeniably sad.

At the age of 9, Rose Edelstein discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in a slice of home-made lemon-chocolate cake. Where before she was cheerful and capable, Rose learns that her mother tastes of sadness, despair and desperation. So begins a life where for Rose, an average meal can become an intimate moment of revelation.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

This gift of being able to read the feelings of the people who prepared the food she consumes is quite unsettling and results in Rose growing up very quickly, becoming an almost adult-child. The book follows her journey as she struggles with this gift, exploring the dynamics of her family: the father who is always there but never present, the sad mother who is always smiling, and the older brother who does not like to be touched.

I admit that I have a predilection for tales of dysfunctional families, but the Edelsteins are quietly dysfunctional: soundlessly desperate and unhappy yet not prepared for anything to change. Rose, wise beyond her years, is an excellent narrator who builds a stagnant world of surface where sadness and loss continue to permeate the air long after the last page has been read.

I recommend this book because I didn’t fully understand it, and for me, those are the kinds of books that stay with you. Let me know what you think!