Three books to make you uncomfortable

Tis the season of the beach read, and nothing says beach read like Hitler and slavery.


TITLE: Summer House With Swimming Pool
AUTHOR: Herman Koch
PAGES: 387 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Dinner
SORTA LIKE: Tom Perrotta meets Bret Easton Ellis
FIRST LINE: “I am a doctor.”

Summer House With Swimming Pool is Koch’s second novel translated into English from the original Dutch (I reviewed the first, The Dinner, a few weeks ago). Like The Dinner, SHWSP is a creepy suspenseful family drama involving parents’ actions when it comes to their children.

Doctor Marc Schlosser and his family—wife Caroline and daughters Julia and Lisa—find themselves becoming friends with Marc’s patient, famous actor Ralph Meier, and his family, whom the Schlossers ultimately join on a vacation at the Meier’s summer house. While Marc wiles away his vacay passively loathing Ralph (while half-assedly wooing Judith), both families are suddenly affected by a tragic event that forces them to contend with their true feelings about each other.

Marc—like Paul Lohman, the unreliable and rather loathsome narrator of The Dinner—is a politically incorrect and sometimes vile storyteller, the kind of man who thinks things like, “A half rape—women always like that. All women.” And yet to watch him navigate the mysteries of a violent incident involving his daughter is to be torn between Marc the justice-seeking father and Marc the possible sociopath. Koch excels at this, reinforcing the realities of imperfection, the fact that none of us are wholly likable, yet few are wholly evil. SHWSP is a solid (though not quite as gripping) follow-up to The Dinner; Koch’s other novels can’t get translated quickly enough.


TITLE: The Sellout
AUTHOR: Paul Beatty
PAGES: 288 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Slumberland, The White Boy Shuffle
FIRST LINE: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”

As audacious satire goes, The Sellout is fearless. Set in the fictional California town of Dickens, the novel follows local rabble-rouser BonBon (nickname) as he fights back against a political machine that aims to wipe [low-income, primarily black] Dickens off the map. BonBon’s goal: to overcome the political apathy and lingering racism of the modern world. His method: the unthinkable—reinstating segregation.

Every sentence of The Sellout is packed with as many jokes and references as Paul Beatty can feasibly fit, and the relentless humor makes this a novel both comically dense while still easy enough to read. (It’s also the kind of satire that makes it hard not to parse whatever book you pick up next for underhanded humor.) Beatty’s brand of comedy means that the actual narrative plot of The Sellout can get lost in the shuffle, but for the most part his inimitable way with words more than makes up for it. BonBon’s tirades against America (“this country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is”) and against whiteness (“Laguna Beach volleyball white. Bel Air white. Omakaze white. Spicolli white. Brett Easton Ellis white. Three first names white. valet parking white.”) will leave you both impressed and laughing out loud.


TITLE: Look Who’s Back
AUTHOR: Timur Vermes
PAGES: 365 (in paperback)
SORTA LIKE: Monty Python meets The Third Reich
FIRST LINE: “It was probably the German people, the Volk, which surprised me most of all.”

It’s tempting to write off a book whose central conceit is Adolf Hitler waking up in Berlin in 2011 as gimmickry, but in his debut novel, published in Germany in 2012 and the U.S last month, Timur Vermes is so committed to over-the-top satire that his decision to reincarnate the Führer in the 21st century ends up feeling just this side of inspired.

Hitler, for his part, has no idea how or why he has time-traveled into the future, and while he is surprised and sometimes dismayed by the developments of the last 70 years, he also remains comically strategic, a true believer even in the face of the seeming impossible: his own irrelevance.

The comedic possibilities for a reincarnated Hitler are near-endless, and Adolf’s running commentary on 2011 make for great slapstick. Forced at one point to wash his full-regalia military uniform, Hitler begrudgingly accepts a loaner pair of what he calls “genes.” Later, during a business meeting, he sympathizes with the “warehouses in which you and your comrades are forced to perform compulsory labor” only to be told that it’s just an open-plan office. Hitler even chides his audience for our delay in accepting the book’s narrative foil as quickly as he has:

“How can the poor reader, who during the years, nay decades, of my absence has been drowning in the Marxist broth of history from the soup kettle of democracy, be capable of peering over the edge of his own bowl?” 

Presumed by the public to be a dedicated and flawless Hitler impersonator, the Führer quickly becomes famous, and his refusal to “drop character” propels his popularity as a purveyor of edgy improv comedy (albeit, one with a rather striking commitment to the cause). Likewise, it’s this nonstop Hitler-ness that makes Look Who’s Back so profane and hilarious, sort of like a madcap Elf with historical overtones.

20 thoughts on “Three books to make you uncomfortable”

  1. All three of these books sound like perfect beach reads to me! 🙂 Just don’t tell the person on the towel next to you what your book is about haha

  2. Good choices – I love a bit of uncomfortable reading! Speaking of which, if you haven’t read it you need to track down “Bear v Shark” – cracking novel about crass consumerism and our inane 24 hour media culture. I think it would be up your street 🙂

    1. It is, I read it in German (well, no accomplishment, I AM German), and if you read (in your head) the parts of Hitler with the typical Hitler belch voice – it gets really eerie.

      1. Apparently the film rights have already been sold, so I’ve been daydreaming about a film adaptation. With the right Hitler, it could be so so good.

      2. I doubt that you have seen the parodies of the German-British crime-movies based on Edgar Wallace stories, The Wanker, but here is a link to the best scenes of Hatler, the butler … That actor spoke the German audiobook:

      3. Well, sometimes in this book you read a sentence where you would agree with the narrator – for example when he trashes modern TV – but when the narrator (Hitler!) gabbles on you strongly disagree – and begin to accuse yourself that for the blink of an eye you have agreed with this psychopath!

  3. Have you read anything by Jincy Willett? We read her “Winner of the National Book Award” for my book club. All selections for this group are supposed to have won or been on the list for book awards e.g. Mann Booker, etc.. This one was not but we all enjoyed the satire in it, including in the title.

  4. I am intrigued by all three, as I was by your previous review of “The Dinner.” I would never have heard of these books without your blog, so thank you! (though my savings account is probably glaring at you right now as I skip to the bookstore, again lol).

  5. We are listening to Look Who’s Back in the original German and it is HILARIOUS. Had to get past hearing Hitler’s “voice” in the first couple of chapters but from then on it was just one long happy satirical ride.

  6. Read, loved and reviewed Summer House With Swimming Pool and the other two have been at the top of my list since I heard about them! Another I love is The Chocolate Money…uncomfortable to the extent that I only recommend to a select few friends for fear others will be freaked out

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