Monthly Archives: October 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

It can be a little upsetting when you find yourself identifying with the mother of a teenaged killer. But that was likely Lionel Shriver’s point when she wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin sometime after the real-life Columbine shootings that are often referenced in her Orange Prize winning novel.

The book is told in a series of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her (presumed) estranged husband after an event referred to mostly as Thursday. Through her brutally honest letters we come to learn of her life: before Kevin, with Kevin and after Thursday. At many points in the novel Eva is the envy of many women – well travelled, wealthy, smart, independent etcetera etcetera – and yet no one would actually envy her for she is the mother of Kevin; a despondent, surly, cold, and often malicious boy even from an early age. Almost from birth Kevin’s behaviour pits his parents against one another as he shows what we are to believe are his true colours to his mother while putting on a caricatured version of a happy-go-lucky boy for his father.

To say Kevin’s character is disturbing is not to say anything new. His actions are often heinous and the amount of disdain he holds for his mother is heart-wrenching. Time and time again, Shriver has Eva mention that she wasn’t sure if she even wanted a child as though to force the nature versus nurture debate down the reader’s throat. On some level we are supposed to blame Eva because as a child was growing inside her she questioned her decision to become a mother. If all it took were a little uncertainty to ruin a child I have to think we’d have a lot more Columbines on our hands. To think that Kevin would, on some level, pick up on his mother’s periodic contempt for her first born is not, I don’t think, unbelievable. But the amount of energy he puts into harming her specifically is extraordinary. He saves disturbances for her eyes only – like masturbating with the bathroom door open while watching his mother, destroying his mother’s coveted possessions from her travels or, when asked why he spared his mother’s life in the shootings he responded “When you’re putting on a show, you don’t kill the audience.”

Despite Kevin’s early warning signs, despite his parent’s affluence, despite the acknowledgement of teachers and other authorities that Kevin was not quite right and despite Eva’s instincts telling her Kevin was troubled, Kevin still committed an act of violence that left 11 people dead. This could be Shriver telling us there is no hope since there is no saviour for these kinds of kids, or she could be telling us that the responsibility doesn’t lie with the parents at all since Kevin had “good” parents or perhaps she was simply trying to illustrate that children who commit atrocities are not necessarily products of atrocious environments. Whatever her modus operandi I know I found myself struggling with those questions throughout the book. Jumping from “lock him up” to “kill him with kindness” and back again. But somehow, 400 pages didn’t prepare me for the ending. With only one page remaining in the book, I had all the facts I was going to get. I had made my peace with Kevin and found a category to put him in in my head. Until I turned the page and magically, with one paragraph Shriver managed to turn all of my assumptions on their heads and left me feeling, somehow, more confused then when I started.

~ kate

On the nightstand: Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

My Christmas List

I know it may seem way too early for this but I’ve started writing my Christmas list. This was prompted by my husband who is the opposite of the typical scramble-to-buy-gifts-on-Christmas-eve male and likes to get his shopping done “capital-E” early. Since the bulk of my list is books, I thought I’d share.

Ace’s Xmas List 2012

  • new fuzzy slippers  to replace the last two pairs that Teddy has ripped to shreds 
  • a new bathrobe to keep me warm when it (inevitably) gets to  -30C and I still refuse to turn up the heat in the house
  • a set of Caffe Beano coffee mugs
  • a 500 to 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Preferably a picture of something disgustingly adorable
  • the Colombia Lonely Planet
  • Ru by Kim Thuy – An autobiographical tale of a voyage from postwar Vietnam to a new beginning in 1970s Quebec. Vietnam + French Canada = sparked interest.
  • When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman – I read this in the review by Globe and Mail and was sold “There are books that tug on the heartstrings, and then there are full-on tractor pulls. When God Was a Rabbit falls into the latter category.”
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – Set during WWII, the main character meets a man in a Greenwich Village jazz bar who propels  her into the upper eschelons of New York society. Sounds like Pride and Prejudice meets Great Gasby with a little bit of Gossip Girl. I’m in.
  • Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azzerrad – I read this book when I was somewhere around 13. It’s been a nostalgic kind of year so I’m ready to read it again.
  • Paris: A Love Story by Kati Marton – This one, obviously, needs no explanation.
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – I don’t know much about this book except that it’s written by a New Zealand author, won the 2007 Commonwealth Prize and was shaped by the plot of Great Expectations. That’s three for three in my books.
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman – One of the newest additions to the burgeoning “from a child’s perspective” genre, I have so far enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and Room.  I expect this novel, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize will be no different.
  • The Cook by Wayne MacCauley – This story is about “power through service” where delinquent boys are taught a skill rather than simply being punished; they’re taught to cook. After reading We Need to Talk About Kevin(review is imminent!) I’m yearning for a classic “pull up the bootstraps, turned himself around” kind of story.
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker – Her career began as a writer for Vanity Fair, filling in for P.G. Wodehouse, she went on to write for The New Yorker and later worked on the screenplay for A Star is Born. She is a seminal component of modern day pop-culture and thus a required part of my library.
  • Big Sur by Jack Kerouac – my Beat Collection is not yet complete.

I can assure you (and you, good husband) this list will change between now and Xmas – likely in the form of additions. So, if you have any recommendations, send them on over!

Happy Sunday everyone!

Good Things Come in Small Packages

I went and did a silly thing this week: I got a job. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say returning to the ol’ nine-to-five life after a nearly five month hiatus really cut into my reading time. Thus, I made very little headway this week in either of the books I’m currently reading (Tipping Point and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I barely even dog-eared the newest Vanity Fair!

So, I did what any self-respecting blogger who doesn’t want to disappoint her hordes of fans would do – I found the smallest book I own and read it in a single sitting. Luckily for me good things come in small packages.

Equally prominent on must-read lists and banned reading lists, Of Mice and Men, tells the tragic tale of two labourers traveling the pasturelands of California during the Great Depression. At just over 100 pages this is by no means an epic tale but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch.

On the surface, the story is quite simple, two men are traveling across California looking for work and ultimately their own slice of heaven. They are, as so many characters in American Classics are, in pursuit of the American Dream. They want to be their own boss, make their own decisions, bear the fruit of their labours and answer to no one but the rise and fall of the sun.

This is, of course, what makes a story classic – its message transcends time, political changes, economic changes, race, class etc. Today, just as 75 years ago when this book was published, everyone has some dream that

propels them forward, convincing them to work another shift, work harder, sleep less and grin and bear it for in the end it will all be worth it. We have stories like Of Mice and Men, and American propaganda predicated upon the history of those who first tilled the land to thank for at least a portion of this idea that is the “American Dream” being ingrained in every generation since the “Silent Generation.”

Typically, the pursuit of this dream focuses on an idea of Success. Something often overlooked in this discussion is the idea that this journey tends to be a lonely one. This was the most pervasive theme in Of Mice and Men to me. From Lennie’s unfortunate habit of killing the field mice he wants only to keep as quiet companions in his pocket, to Curly’s wife’s (the unnamed female in the story) constant quest for attention from the working men and finally, George’s decision to euthanize his friend, all of the characters in the story are disconnected from their fellow man and ultimately in the game on their own. The message being: the decisions and sacrifices we make in the name of achieving our dreams can often be isolating, even if that wasn’t our original intent.

Starting this book I was, of course aware that it was a highly contentious piece of literature when it was first published – be it for racist comments, the mere mention of brothels, the theme of euthanasia or as some have even argued its homosexual leanings – but in this day and age I found it nearly impossible to even notice these items without being pointed right at them. The bigger risk in releasing this book to the public, I imagine, was the feared impact it might have on the working class. For what if they were to read this story and realize that the American Dream wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be? That toiling for years in an effort to achieve success would not, ultimately, lead to happiness; what then would happen to the massive engine in the machine that is the USA?

Luckily for all of us, freedom of expression (and I’m sure some door knocking hippies) prevailed and Of Mice and Men is now synonymous with classic American literature as is Steinbeck himself. Books like this paved the way for the cornucopia of books of similar theme that would follow in the three quarters of a century since its release, from authors like: Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, and Mark Twain to name just a few.

And thank fuck for that.

~ kate

Nicole Krauss – Watch Out!

Sometimes I cringe when people suggest book titles for me to read.  Don’t they realize the mound next to my bed isn’t getting any smaller??? And don’t they know I can’t turn down a recommendation to save my life??? When I recommend a book to someone it is of the highest order – the book has been chosen out of a large selection specifically for them – so when someone turns the tables and sends me a title to read I feel an enormous amount of guilt if I can’t follow through. Once in awhile though, these recommendations turn out to be satisfyingly delicious and it makes the whole emotional battle worth it.

A lovely friend of mine recommended Markus Zusak’s  The Book Thief to me a couple of months ago. The timing was bad – I had just entered one of those self-imposed periods of book-purchasing-abstinence  – but luckily that didn’t last very long and I picked up a copy a couple weeks back at everyone’s favourite local book shop Shelf Life.

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany.” That was all my rubber arm needed to be convinced to buy this book. When I was a teen I went through a huge Holocaust phase where I would read anything and everything on the topic. Since most of these books were from the Young Adult section they were an easily digestible 150 or so pages. The Book Thief is not. It is a much bigger meal at nearly 550 pages. As I said though, the Nazi reference on the jacket sold me so I was excited to start this read. I quickly felt my enthusiasm waning, however, as I turned the first couple of pages. The Book Thief feels gimmicky initially: there are these esoteric intros to each section which outline the contents of the following pages, the text is constantly being interrupted by what could be described as thoughts or proclamations that feel like they are coming from someone other than the main voice and a lot of characters are introduced immediately only you aren’t sure they are characters at all. With me? Exactly. Put all of these things together and I ended up reading the prologue two or three times. Not a good sign when I am doing my darnedest to work through the mound of books next to my bed. Did I mention the mound????

Despite all this, I was persuaded to persevere by the voice of the book. It feels almost like someone is whispering the story to you. Like he doesn’t want anyone else to hear and isn’t quite ready to reveal himself. The first couple chapters were a bit of a struggle as I constantly convinced myself to just go with it; to trust in the author that I wouldn’t remain confused (and slightly irritated by the confusion) for the entire book. At some point in the novel the sheer genius of the tale kind of slaps you in the face. So much so that I felt myself physically respond – I sat up straighter, wiped some hair out of my face and quickened my reading pace – as though I wasn’t alone in my reading and this person whispering the tale to me had in fact revealed themselves long ago; I just hadn’t been paying enough attention.

The main character (or one of, I suppose you could argue) is a young girl struggling to survive in adolescence, abandonment and war and she easily works her way into your subconscious. She is one of those characters you find yourself thinking about later in the day. That can be said of the book in general though, it stays with you, haunts you even, long after you’ve put the book down.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t enjoy this book (assuming they outlasted the prologue). I might even go so far as to say you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t love it. I don’t remember all the details of the book, all the ebbs and flows of the story line, but the feeling of the book is not one that goes away easily. It is one of those books you hold onto a little longer than normal after you finish it. Just as it holds on to you.

~ kate

When I need a little false hope and euphoria…

When I’m feeling a little down-in-the-dumps or even just kind of ‘blah’ (and I call myself a writer!) there are a small handful of things that are guaranteed to cheer me up. One of them, of course, is a visit to a bookstore. I have sworn by independent bookstores in the past, and I stand by this, but when I’m looking for a quick endorphin-inducing outing I head to Chapters. Gasp I know. I have my reasons:

  •  When I need a pick me up, I head straight for the Travel section. This always seems to put me in a temporary state of euphoria. Travel sections in indie bookstores are generally very small. I’m guessing this is because indie shops aren’t exactly a travel-book kind of destination (a case of the chicken and the egg?) and because travel books are probably expensive/risky inventory since you have 6 months to sell them before they become stagnant and are replaced by next year’s edition. Thus, a visit to Chapters is required to get my “travel” fix. Colombia anyone?

A wall full of Lonely Planets (and Frommers and Rick Steves and Fodors).

  • Part of the high I’m looking for on these trips comes from the caffeinated beverage that can also be obtained at big box bookstores. There’s something about a Starbucks cup; you just feel good holding them…
  • The pretty pretty pretty shelves stacked full of pretty pretty pretty books make me very very very happy. I sometimes get the same feeling in Walmart – I don’t want to buy any of the stuff but it all looks so nice neatly stacked in ridiculous quantities on the perfect shelves.

Pretty pretty pretty shelves

  • I can linger, wander, remove and replace books and read to my heart’s content without any feelings of guilt. Chapters is where I do my browsing; the local shop is where I turn over my plastic.

The experience isn’t about consuming for me since I generally leave empty-handed but I somehow become rejuvenated when I leave. I’m not sure what it is about bookstores – if it’s just seeing the thousands of books I’ve yet to read or the feeling of being surrounded by so much creativity but I leave there with fresh ideas and a new-found gusto for silly things in life. Things like this blog that have an unclear purpose but make me happy all the same.

~ kate

On the nightstand: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Graphic Novel

I went through a period when I was a kid where I was obsessed with Archie comics. I would buy them, trade them, take them out from the library, throw them in the shopping cart at Hull’s Foods (anyone? anyone?) when no one was looking, you name it. Somewhere around the 1000th issue though I decided they really all were the same and started to move on.

A few years later, Manga hit my plate in the form of Sailor Moon. People were obsessed with this stuff but I never understood it. By that point I think I felt I was too old for comics. Thus, I abhorred that world and the reflection it would certainly have on my maturity/level of intelligence/street cred/etcetera etcetera.

Then, about 10 years ago, I started to notice the resurgence of Graphic Novels. I quickly picked up my first one, Escape from Special, at a bookstore on one of my travels. I don’t own it anymore and don’t remember a lot about it except that it was a fairly fun and fast read. Still, the graphic novel hadn’t really made much of an impression on me.

Flash forward five or so years. I was strolling along Brighton Lanes in the UK (as you do) when I saw a graphic novel in the window of a store. The cover was of a swastika with a mouse-like version of Hitler at its center. I ran in and bought it immediately. The book was Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I think I finished that novel before we even left the Lanes. The graphic novel finally made sense to me. So much more could be conveyed using both words and pictures. The pictures set the scene and the mood while the words simply added clarity. It was brilliant. I didn’t immediately convert to “a graphic novel reader” but over the years I often visit that ever-growing section of the bookstore and from time to time I find some gems.

Most recently, I picked up a book called Not the Israel My Parent’s Promised Me  written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by JT Waldman. I know bits and pieces about the Bible and bits and pieces about the Israel-Palestine conflict but in no way could I really hold a conversation about either. I would not necessarily choose to converse about either topic since reading this book but I would certainly sound like less of a dolt now. The novel breaks the conflict down into manageable comic-book sized pieces without denigrating either party (although the author does take a lot of shots at his own Jewish upbringing) starting with the Jewish diaspora and working its way all the way to the present day conflict. There is a lot of focus on the historical importance of events while Pekar’s present day priorities seem to centre more along the lines of his parent’s rigid belief systems and how his own attitude about the state of Israel has changed over the years.

If history books were presented like this in school, it might give more kids a fighting chance and really get them interested in learning (plus, imagine all the artists who could be, gasp, employed!). But perhaps I’m way behind the times and students now watch series like The Tudors in school? Either way, I think the Graphic Novel holds an important place in modern day literature. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our sound-byte sized attention spans but like everything in life diversity is never a bad thing. I find adding different reading materials, genres, mediums etc. a refreshing change from time to time. And really, if the Graphic Novel gets one more person reading who otherwise wouldn’t, how could anyone really knock it?

Not the Israel My Parent’s Promised Me didn’t break the top 3 for me though I am certainly glad I read it. Still firmly entrenched in the top spots are:

  1. Howl written by Allen Ginsberg, illustrated by Eric Drooker
  2. Maus by Art Spiegelman (any of the three)
  3. The Beats by Harvey Pekar and Ed Puhle, illustrated by Ed Piskor

What did I miss? Anyone have any suggestions that’ll knock one of these out of the top spot?

~ kate

I swear this is not a movie review

Last night I went to see the new Clint Eastwood movie Trouble With the Curve. This is the second movie in a row that I have chosen for my husband and I to go see that has completely disappointed us. I assumed that because Clint Eastwood was in it, it would be decent at the very least. Similarly, I assumed that Hope Springs would be good because Meryl Streep was in it. Both times I was wrong. I can admit it.

For most of the movie last night all I could think was I wish I could just leave. When a predictably corny part of the movie was coming up (there were more of these than I could count) I started to get physically uncomfortable for the embarassment the actors were about to go through. If it had been a terrible book I was reading, I could have helped them. Which made me start thinking about all the reasons I would have rather been curled up with a book instead of being punished in a movie theatre.

Top 10 Reasons a Book is Better Than a Movie:

  1. A book goes at whatever pace you want – you can zoom through the scary or boring parts or hover over any that resonate with you. Last night’s movie would have been over in 35 minutes instead of 2 hours.
  2. Corny parts in a book are nowhere near as bad as they are in a movie because you can layer them with all sorts of offsetting images or change the tone of the actor. In a movie, I have no way of helping Amy Adams through a slightly off-key version of “You Are My Sunshine”…
  3. Foreshadowing is a classic literary technique. I believe it is much easier to use this subtly in a book then in a movie. For example, when the “Peanut Boy” tosses a bag of peanuts at mach 4 to a baseball player in Trouble With the Curve, it is as though the director thinks the audience might not understand that this is foreshadowing the “Peanut Boy’s” eventual baseball success. To clarify, he lingers on the bruised-ego look on the catcher’s face and even has him declare: “ouch”.
  4. Clint Eastwood still looks like he did in Dirty Harry in a book.
  5. The book version of Amy Adams wouldn’t have hunkered down like a man who had just ridden a horse to catch “Peanut Boy’s” fast ball. My mind would have accommodated the error on the writers part (I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure a girl who hasn’t had a lengthy baseball career would not be able to simply slip on a catcher’s mitt and catch a fastball from someone who’s about to go to the big leagues) and made the whole experience a little more believable. She would have appeared somewhat awkward and maybe even fumbled the ball. My tiny IQ still would have been able to understand that “Peanut boy” can throw with the big boys.
  6. Blackberry’s don’t make any noises in books
  7. If I feel as though a book is insulting my intelligence (50 Shades of Grey?) I can put it down. I was not allowed to leave the movie theatre last night.
  8. A book is cheaper than taking two people to the movies
  9. In a book, every character can look like Justin Timberlake if you want.
  10. In a book, Justin Timberlake always has his shirt off.

On the nightstand: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

~ kate

Geek Love

I finished the book Geek Love by Katherine Dunn a few days ago but have been unable to write about it. Not for lack of want or opinion or time (no more so than usual anyway) but rather because I simply needed a break from it.

It took me about a week and a half to read this book – much longer than it would normally take me to snap off a 300-or-so-paged book. In part this was because Ms Dunn’s writing is so dense that reading 30 pages often felt like reading 100.  Countless times I found myself reading and rereading sentences: “The terror hurt good and I nursed it and played it like a loose tooth” does an incredibly effective job of communicating the neurotic-fixation the character has undertaken but it also forces my grey matter to fire in a new way. My cogs don’t move so fast.

The other reason this book took me awhile to read was because of how often I had to put it down out of sheer flabergastedness (yup, technically speaking). The only book I can think to compare Geek Love to is Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Both books center on a hard-to conceptualize character with obvious personality issues, both books shocked and stunned me from time to time and both books contain way more than meets the eye.

Geek Love is a sort of Machiavellian tale told from the view point of Olympia a blind, albino, hunchbacked dwarf. Her family runs a circus of freaks where the family members are the main attractions. Their status as freaks was born by their father’s hand – he doctored his wife with insecticides, radioisotopes and amphetamines while she was pregnant with each offspring – and it is solidly entrenched in them as their reason for being on Earth. To be normal is to be nothing.

Olympia reveres her older brother Arturo for whom she acts as a sort of personal assistant and confidante.  Arturo is the oldest child in the Binewski family and was born with flippers instead of limbs. His aqua performances combined with his bombastic messages leads him to become somewhat of an oracle for his spectators/band followers. Olympia idolizes her brother to the point of mortifying extremes: she bathes and oils him after his performances, attacks the ladies who frequent his bedroom in the middle of the night in an effort to protect him, washes behind his testicles when he develops a fungus from being in the water too long and eventually, becomes pregnant with his child.

Arturo suffers from (is elevated by?) something akin to narcissism or a Machiavellian personality disorder. He finds it his purpose in life to help circus spectators by offering them hope in the way of Arturism: a cult like religion where admission and enlightenment come at the insignificant price of amputation. Limbs first, then arms, then legs. As Arty’s following grows we see Arty gain both physical size and idolized status while those around him suffer. Inversely proportional to his strength his mother and father become weaker, mere shadows of themselves all the way to the point where his mother is leading nothing more than a life of pill-induced coma.

The fascinating thing about this book (as though the tidbits I’ve offered thus far aren’t enough) is how it made my brain reel. Partly from the shock of what I was reading, yes, but partly in an effort to make sense of everything that I was reading.  This book can be interpreted in so many different ways and on so many different levels. At face value it is a supremely messed up carny story. Dig a little deeper and there’s a sort of social commentary about wanting to belong, demonstrating the efficacy of extremist cults. Or, a whole new web could be woven if each character was to be interpreted using the DSM-IV. And that’s just the start of what could be a very long list.

Not a day has passed since I put this book down that I haven’t thought about it. It’s hard to shake a message like Arty’s: if you abhor conventional standards or definitions of what it means to be good or normal and shed external/societal notions, then happiness is yours. Arty takes it to the extreme, yes, but is his message really that far off from the truth? And who among us isn’t searching for that simple and yet so often unattainable fruit that is happiness?

~ kate

On the nightstand: Book Thief by Markus Zusak