The Dinner

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Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.

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As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side.

The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.

So this is interesting. It would seem that us American readers require more orbs to get us interested in a novel of Victorian scope and heft. I like the slightly more subtle U.K. look

The U.S. version is a little dull though it has a pleasing spareness to it and I like the vintage botanical illustration thing going on there. I far prefer it to the U.K. cover. I get that there’s a handmade motif happening but the colors are jarring to my eye.

I don’t think you would ever see a cover that looks so “genre” on a literary novel in the U.S., and it kind of makes sense with Hamid’s self-help-inflected title and the “Filthy Rich” in a giant font. The U.S. cover is aggressively boring.

Both are bold, but I prefer the U.S. cover. The burnt tablecloth is a more original image than the lobster.

I suspect I may be in the minority here, but I prefer the U.S. cover which seems to bank on the Lahiri name, rather than the U.K., edition which seems to telegraph the subcontinental content.

Neither of these seems to be exerting much effort to break out of the Western-genre tradition, but the U.S. version’s painterly affect at least gives it a little intrigue.

At first glance, both of these appear to be going for the creative use of classic Asian motifs, but the British cover is actually pretty wild, using something called “Blippar technology” to produce an animated effect when you look at it with a smartphone. So, points for innovation in book cover design.

Both of these are pretty great, but I love the U.S. cover. It’s clever to have a YA book with a cover that looks drawn by the hand of a precocious teen. It kind of reminds me of the similar design philosophy of the 2007 movie Juno.

Drawings inspired by vintage botany texts must be in this year. Here we have two different versions of the same idea, but the U.S. take is more lush and interesting.

Atkinson is a superstar in the U.K. (as opposed to merely having legions of devoted fans in the U.S.) so that may account for the foregrounding of her name on the U.K. cover. Regardless, the U.S. look is far more intriguing.

The Flamethrowers unaccountably didn’t get a Tournament bid, but it should have, so we’ll include it here, especially because it’s a great example of some seriously bold cover design going on on both sides of the pond.

Before They Were Notable: 2013


This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (A Virtuoso at Work: Joyce Carol Oates Turns 75)
All That Is by James Salter (All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter, James Salter’s All That Is: From Dream to Reality)
The Circle by Dave Eggers (A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s The Circle)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master)
The Dinner by Herman Koch (After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Queens As a Metaphor for the World: On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King)
The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Rachel Kushner Is Well On Her Way to Huges)
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (The Chemistry between Fiction and Reality: The Millions Interviews Ramona Ausubel, a Millions contributor)
Half The Kingdom by Lore Segal (The Smile in the Bone: Lore Segal’s Half The Kingdom)
The Infatuations by Javier Marías (The Darkness is Deep Indeed: On Javier Marías’s The Infatuations)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (When the Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood (The Past is What Matters: On Margaret Atwood’s Vision of the Future)
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Something Stark and Essential: On Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige)
The Son by Philipp Meyer (The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son, Delusion is Crucial: The Millions Interviews Philipp Meyer)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (George Saunders and the Question of Greatness)
Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Peeling Back the Oprah Seal: Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie)
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel (Alienation for Two: Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, a Millions contributor)

After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction

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It seems to be a Dutch national record: Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner reaching the ninth position on the New York Times bestseller list. While the Times’ own reviewer Janet Maslin called the morality of the story “sickening” and its characters “indigestible,” The Economist praised it, saying that “[The Dinner] proves how powerful fiction can be in illuminating the modern world.”

Either sickening or illuminating, Koch’s book is an international success. With Koch climbing the U.S. bestseller lists, it’s time to take a closer look at some newly translated Dutch fiction.

The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

Praised in the Netherlands, the U.K., and now the U.S., The Dinner is Herman Koch’s breakthrough novel. In the Netherlands, Koch is still first and foremost known as one of the makers of the satirical television series Jiskefet; only in recent years has he gained popularity as a novelist.

The Dinner is loosely based on the story of the murder of a homeless woman in Barcelona in 2005, set on fire by three “respectable” young men, children of The Dinner’s main characters, who are prominent politicians. Over the titular dinner, they must discuss the crime their sons committed. It has been recorded by a security camera and aired on national television in order to find the perpetrators, and so far their parents are the only ones who have recognized them. How loyal, the book asks, should parents be towards their children?

The Dinner isn’t a thriller in the usual sense of the word, because it’s not a real whodunit, but one could definitely call it a psychological thriller. Koch has a great talent for creating and maintaining tension in a storyline.

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated by Sam Garrett

Tirza is a story about the obsessive love of a father for his daughter and is one of the most renowned novels by Amsterdam-born, New York City resident Arnon Grunberg, who debuted as a novelist in 1994 and has since created a vast oeuvre of fiction, literary journalism, essays, and stage plays.

Tirza revolves around Jörgen Hofmeester, for whom things aren’t going very well: he lost his job as an editor and all his savings after investing in a hedge fund. His wife left him, but suddenly returns after three years, shortly before their daughter Tirza is about to move out after graduating from high school.

Tirza is the apple of Hofmeester’s eye, and he can’t let her go. When Tirza introduces her boyfriend Choukri to him, Choukri’s strong resemblance to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta occurs to Hofmeester, who starts to regard him as his “personal terrorist.” Later on, Tirza announces that she and Choukri want to travel to Africa. The three of them spend a weekend together at a farmhouse in the Dutch countryside before Hofmeester drops them off at the Frankfurt airport. The story reaches its apotheosis when Hofmeester, after not having heard from Tirza for a few weeks, travels to Namibia to look for her.

Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer

Just before he turned 44, Gerbrand Bakker surprised the world with his literary debut The Twin, which was published in 2006. The novel was highly praised, both in the Netherlands and abroad – it won him the Impac Dublin Literary Award among other prizes.

Ten White Geese, Bakker’s third novel, is mainly set in the Welsh countryside, during the months of November and December, where a woman from Amsterdam has left a painful situation to start all over again. As things develop in Wales — of the ten white geese to which the title refers, only four remain after two months — her husband, back home in Amsterdam, contacts the police and tries to find answers. On the day before Christmas, he and a policeman get on a ferry to the other side of the Channel, and the two story lines come together.

Ten White Geese has also been praised by both Dutch and international literary critics, especially for Bakker’s economical style and his descriptions of nature. There’s a lot that Bakker deliberately leaves unclear so that the reader can interpret the story on his own. In other words: in Bakker’s novels, nothing much happens, and that’s what makes them so powerful.

Little Caesar by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett

Tommy Wieringa wrote Little Caesar after gaining fame with his breakthrough novel Joe Speedboat. Both novels read like a fictional life story. Little Caesar chronicles the story of Ludwig Unger, son of a destructive artist and a porn star (Wieringa based this character on Jeff Koons’s and Ilona Staller’s son).

Little Caesar received mixed reviews after Joe Speedboat was unanimously hailed by the literary critics. Perhaps it was the constant comparison to its predecessor that made the critics doubt Little Caesar’s quality: while Joe Speedboat was mostly set in a rural Dutch village, Little Caesar has a great deal of symbolism and a story in which the protagonist travels all around the world. However, Wieringa still shows his quality as a literary craftsman, with a wonderful sense of style and tone, as we follow Ludwig – mostly in flashbacks after he returns to the British coastal town where he grew up – trying to cope with his difficult relationship with his mother and his quest to find his father in the Southern American jungle.

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