Thursday, December 25, 2008

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

After watching the movie The Piano Teacher a few years ago, I felt disturbed, but also angry at myself. What compelled me to keep watching (although I did fast-forward one scene), knowing how I was feeling? Once it was over, I felt empty and wished I could erase the whole experience. It stayed with me, in all its vividness, for more than a few days. I continued to feel disturbed. I read reviews on its merits and artistic mastery, how it was haunting and beautiful, but I couldn't help but wish it could disappear from my mind. Who cares if it is a work of art, I thought, if I am only left feeling cold?

My experience with The Piano Teacher is how I feel after just finishing Shriver's novel earlier tonight. What compelled me to go on? We Need to Talk about Kevin is a poetic and, I must say, masterfully written work. I became interested in it after reading the review and various comments on the Everyday I Write the Book Blog from this day. It is one of those books you have difficulty pushing aside to do the things you must, such as go to work or wash the dishes. You can't wait to return to it, but reading it is tortuous. Now that I'm done, I feel empty and angry. I could have been reading something beautiful these past few days!

The thing is that I'm all for tragedy, but even tragedy can be created in a way that shows the depths and layers of humanity, even the darkness, without making you feel only despair. Many great works mix tragedy with hope, demonstrating the richness of the human experience, and ultimately leaving the reader with the feeling of "wow!" that can be uplifting. This book did nothing of the sort for me.

Through a series of letters Eva writes to her absent husband, Franklin, we discover that Eva is a woman who never really had an interest in being a mother. She has her first child, Kevin, in her late 30s. How can Kevin be described? Evil? Blank? A little monster? A victim of neglect? I guess it depends on each reader's interpretation, but Kevin, we know early on, will commit a mass murder at his high school.

Although I thought it could not get more horrific, as I made it to the final pages knowing for most of the book that Kevin will murder several of his classmates, believe me, it does take a turn even further into the abyss. If I was already disturbed, it only became worse.

Yes, it is amazingly done. Yes, Shriver's writing is elegant and enthralling, but read at your own risk.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow and Guilt by Giorgio Pressburger

"All the stories contained in this volume are true" we are told in the introduction to this curious and beautifully written book, which is translated from the Italian. While reading it, however, I could not help but think, "How could this be true? How can this detail of others' private lives be real?" I'm still not sure, but I remain intrigued.

Before the first story, the author explains that he decided to seek out information on his schoolmates from more than forty years ago. His research is revealed in the six stories in this slim volume, all of which have elements of tragedy. In one of the longest stories, "Message for the Century," we follow the life of a severely disabled man who exhibits a mix of hatred and love for his parents. In another, "The Case of Professor Fleischmann," a married man becomes obsessed, in a very unhealthy way, with a mysterious woman he has a sexual encounter with.

Once I picked this book up, I could not put it down. I was compelled to read on, even though I found some of the "characters," and their actions, disturbing and, at times, unforgivable. Still, the author dissects the emotional landscape of humanity, including its darkest corners, very well. At times, he also presents hope, beauty, and sacrifice, but something dark hovers over the majority of the text.

I was amazed by the following author's note that appears on the final page:

"There were thirty-nine of us in our class. Including wives, children and grandchildren, today I should be giving an account of two hundred and fifty individuals. I have put together brief notes about all of them. The publisher will be able to send a copy to anyone who asks for it."

Is this, like the rest of the book, really true? How bizarre. The publisher will send me these notes if I inquire?

I am happy for having discovered such an unusual creation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

My mom was visiting recently and one of our excursions was walking the grounds at The Huntington. Afterwards, at the wonderful gift shop on the grounds, she purchased for me a Book Lover’s Page-A-Day Calendar with a book-a-day. Well, this was immediately an issue. Before even leaving the Huntington I found three books I just had to purchase, so we drove to Vroman’s afterwards. I’m trying to refrain from looking at this calendar, but it is difficult. This book, the first in the Mobile Library Mystery series, was discovered during that initial browsing.

When I read in the Book Lover’s Calendar that the character in the series, Israel Armstrong, is a Jewish vegetarian librarian transplanted in Northern Ireland from London, I could not resist. In this book, Israel shows up for his new librarian job in Ireland to be informed that the physical library is closed and his job has changed to driving a rusty bookmobile into remote and not entirely desirable locations. We see Israel longing for his former world of bagels, cappuccinos, and sophisticated surroundings. The mystery begins when he discovers all 15,000 books, the bookmobile’s entire collection, are missing.

Is this book great literature? Definitely, no. Is it entertaining? Definitely, yes. Would I have read it if the main character was not a vegetarian librarian? No way. Do I recommend it? Only if you like humorous mysteries and the books and libraries aspect appeals to you. Will I be reading others in the series? Yes. In fact, I’ve already purchased books two and three. Still, I have to point out some unfortunate things…

  1. Why does Israel need to be such a bumbling fool with no common sense and social skills? This is an unfortunate stereotype for a librarian and one I was disappointed about, but can live with. Maybe he will change later in the series?
  2. How can it be explained that Israel, a vegetarian for ethical reasons, is shown having disregard for a poor dog in one scene and ambivalence to a chicken in another? Shouldn’t this be the opposite?
  3. Finally, why is Israel, who we are told has been a vegetarian for most of his adult life, depicted as nearly drooling over meat being served? Come on!

That sums up my thoughts on this one.

Friday, December 05, 2008

In Berkeley's Green and Pleasant Land: Stories by Renee Blitz

I found this book through one of those addicting Amazon features. It may have been the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” one. I have to confess I purchased it mostly for the title. I love Berkeley, having been a student there in the 1990s.

The stories in this book are full of strange and interesting conversations, odd characters, and whacky situations. They are just like Berkeley. Everyone is into some kind of new philosophy or attending a weird class. Some characters see psychologists regularly; others go to new age group sessions. I loved each story, although the ending of one with a murder was shocking and seemed to glide along too smoothly for such a disturbing twist. Still, maybe that was the point.

The majority of the characters are women hovering before middle age or having recently crossed that barrier. They struggle with sexuality and relationships with men and women friends. Some are lonely, some are desperate, some are restless, and others try to examine their life experiences while questioning feminism.

I was finishing this book while reading with my mom at a café (she is a book, café, and coffee lover too) and I said to her, “I can’t believe how creative and unusual this book is and I bet few people know about it.” For a moment I felt sad, reflecting on the true innovation and art within these pages and the fact that the book likely has a small readership.

Message to Renee Blitz: You are just awesome! You’ve captured the Berkeley essence here.