Dinner with Osama

by Marilyn Krysl
University of Notre Dame Press

Reviewed by Lesléa Newman

Marilyn Krysl’s Dinner With Osama is a full course meal at a five star restaurant eaten to commemorate a special occasion such as a milestone birthday or anniversary. A collection of stories this intelligent, provocative, funny, moving, and wise comes along all too rarely during the course of one’s life. And like those special occasions, it is well worth the wait.

Krysl makes the extraordinary—inviting Osama Bin Laden over for dinner—seem ordinary, and the ordinary—a mother and daughter spending a day at the beach—seem extraordinary. As I slowly made my way through the book, reading one story a night to savor its myriad of pleasures, I felt completely taken care of as a reader. Which is to say, I knew I was in the capable hands of a master storyteller who not only had important truths to tell, but had spent many years perfecting her craft.

From the minute I read the first sentence of the title story, which alone is worth the price of admission into Krysl’s literary world, I felt as though I were spending time with an old friend who still has the ability to surprise me:

“I’m on the Boulder Mall, half an hour before my herbal wrap appointment, shopping for an eyeliner not tested on rabbits, when I get the idea: why not ask Bin Laden over for a glass of Chardonnay and something light but upscale?” (from “Dinner With Osama” page 3)

And why not, indeed? If more of us acted like Sheila, a self-described “average liberal neocolonial with a whiff of Cherokee thrown in way back when” who knows what might happen? Shelia, who must have been standing first in line when chutzpah was handed out, has already lost her nephew Darin in the fall of the Twin Towers and witnessed the unleashing of Darin’s mother’s wild animal of grief. What more does she have to lose? After reading this knockout of a story which won Nimrod’s Geraldine McLoud’s Commendation for fiction, I decided I needed some lighter fare, a treat, a little nosh that would go down easy. And so I skipped ahead to “Cherry Garcia, Pistachio Cream.” But I should have known that even a story with such a seemingly frivolous title would be anything by trivial when penned by Marilyn Krysl’s hand. The tale is about: “A mother, a daughter, a beach.” Which is the exact first sentence of the story. But like any story focusing on “mother-daughterness” it is anything but simple.

There is not a lot of action in the story—a wise choice on the part of the author. As the unnamed mother and daughter drift through a lazy day on the beach, the writer, along with the reader, drift through their shared past through a series of flashbacks and learn via the big and little moments of their lives what has made them who they are today, both as individuals, and as a unit. The end of the story reveals a hard though not unexpected truth: the mother loves the daughter more than she loves her husband, her parents, life itself. And while the entire story has been leading up to this revelation, the emotional impact is stunning. I, who have never wanted a child, found myself longing for a daughter with whom to be so in love. And though the feeling passed, as I knew it would, I had to marvel at writing that could shake me to the core, even momentarily, in such a profound way.

I could go on—every story in the collection deserves its own paragraph of praise—but suffice to say, whether Krysl is celebrating the sensuality of women’s bellies or describing the struggle of a starving woman in Sudan (her range is astonishing) she does so with eloquent and elegant language that simply takes one’s breath away. It has been said that poets make the best prose writers, and in Krysl’s case it is absolutely true. Who but an accomplished poet could write sentences such as these:

“Air, that elusive whiff of a female, balancing on the hint of a toe, flips her gossamer whirl of a skirt, and wafts off, leaving him standing there.” (from “Air: A Romance” page 79)

“It’s a thrill being in a body. Light looks shiny, molecules dither and swivel along my neural pathways, looking at passing hunks buzzes my pheromone receptors, a woman walks past twirling a sprig of lilac, little kids look excessively innocent, and the cuteness just doesn’t stop.” (from “Are We Dwelling Deep Yet?” page 20)

Dinner With Osama is a book that will be read, re-read, discussed, and passed around. A friend of mine puts every book she reads to the ultimate test, asking herself, “Am I a better person for having read this book?” I can unequivocally say in the case of Dinner with Osama, that the answer is yes.

© 2008 Lesléa Newman