Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin...then we'll have an ice cream and a cuddle

Ohmygoodness this book. Official title: We Need to Talk About Kevin. Unofficial title: The Destroyer of Worlds.

Most of you have heard of this little doozy and are familiar with the premise, especially with the recent release of the movie adaptation, starring Tilda Swinton (SWINTON!). But I will regale you with a synopsis anyway, if only to refresh my own memory at the risk of reawakening those feelings of horror that have subsided somewhat since I put The Destroyer back on the shelf.

The story is told entirely through letters, written by Eva Katchadourian to her estranged husband, Franklin. In these letters, she dissects her role as a wife and mother, starting with the euphoria of the early years of their marriage and traveling through the life-shattering events set in motion by the birth of their son, Kevin.

Right away, we know Kevin is serving time for brutally murdering seven students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker at his high school. So, with the Big Event out of the way, every incident from Kevin’s childhood (from birth to age 17) that Eva rehashes in her letters to Franklin is endowed with the chilling clarity of hindsight, if only that provided by her limited perspective. So, yes, you start out knowing a big portion of the story . . . but don't for a minute think you know everything. I promise you, you don't.

This book is a slow burner with SO MUCH depth and nuance, and an ominous buildup like you wouldn’t believe. It’s a passenger train steadily gaining speed over miles and miles of track, barreling inevitably toward the cliff’s edge—a fate made all the more tragic by the fact that we can all see it coming. There will be victims, and there's nothing we can do about it. I can’t even tell you. I just DID tell you . . . but it’s not enough. I must SHOW you.
“Maybe it goes without saying that the pea plants died, as did the sprouting avocado that replaced them, while at the same time I noticed idly that I was missing a bottle of bleach. There were mysteries: Subsequent to a particular day in January, the moment I led Kevin by the hand into the classroom, a little girl with Shirley Temple curls began to cry, and her wailing worsened until at some point in February she never came back. Another boy, aggressive and rambunctious in September, one of those biffy sorts always boxing your leg and pushing other kids in the sandbox, suddenly became silent and inward, developing at once a severe case of asthma and an inexplicable terror of the coat closet, within five feet of which he would begin to wheeze. What did that have to do with Kevin? I couldn’t say; perhaps nothing.” (p. 178)
“Remember when you wanted to buy Kevin a dog? I begged you not to. I was glad you never forced me to explain, since I never explained it to myself. I just know that whenever I envisioned our bouncing black lab, or trusting Irish setter, I was filled with horror.” (p. 181)
Are we getting the picture?
Aside from the obvious paranoid fixations this story evokes in readers, it taps into a very particular and enduring fear of mine: that kids will come between me and my husband—that having children, when we do, will destroy our marriage. I don't know what to do toward allaying that fear, but I think never reading this book again as long as I live might be a good start.

As for that OTHER concern—you know, spawning a sociopathic killing machine—I found a cure for that, and I will share it with you for free (because I care). As I read the portion of this book covering Kevin’s birth and early years, I happened to be spending a great deal of time in the company of an infant.

As incongruous as these two situations may seem, I can’t think of a better way to experience this book. He was the antidote. Just when I was deciding once and for all against having any children ever, I would look down at the sleeping bundle of perfection in my arms and be reminded that Kevin is the exception, not the rule.

And when my sweet baby friend wasn’t sleeping, he was a sympathetic ear for my traumatized ramblings.

“But Kevin . . . I . . . it’s just . . . WHAT IS GOING ON?”

“Kevin’s ruining everything! And he’s doing it ON PURPOSE.”

“You’ll NEVER guess what Kevin just did!”

Yeah, I’m tired of talking about Kevin, too.

SOURCE: Shriver, Lionel. (2003). We Need to Talk About Kevin. New York: Harper Perennial.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In which I prove unworthy of free books

Book blogger milestone alert! The Good Father is my first ever advanced reader copy. This situation is a bit awkward for me, because I feel obligated to put on my Serious Reviewer of Books face and show Doubleday that their mailing envelope wasn't utterly wasted on me. So I'll at least TRY to put a leash on my natural tendency toward caustic humor, lest this be my first AND last ARC.

Here’s what I’m going to do: First, I’ll put on my business casual and tell you what I liked about this book. Then I’ll change into some Urban Outfitters and commence with the judginess.

But before I do any of that, I should probably tell you what this book is about.

Daniel Allen stands accused of very publicly assassinating a breakout star in the presidential race. His father, who lost touch with him years before, receives the news with utter disbelief. He sets out to prove his son’s innocence, retracing Daniel's nomadic road trip across the country and adapting his medical skills as a diagnostician to identify the factors (symptoms) that landed Daniel at the scene of the crime (the disease). Along the way, he confronts his failures as a father . . . or, rather, THEY confront HIM.

The Good Father is not particularly plot-driven. If I had to call it anything, I might label it a procedural. There’s a lot of medical terminology, and chapters dedicated to case studies of well-known killers and wannabe killers (James Earl Ray, John Hinckley, etc.) are interspersed throughout.

This is the part where I say nice things.

Noah Hawley does a great job of building suspense. Right away, we start out with a climax. After that, we’re seeing everything from the father’s perspective, and all the revelations are in hindsight. It would be really easy for the story to fall flat after such an explosive beginning, but Noah keeps the momentum up and manages to end most chapters on a dramatic note that serves as a cliffhanger of sorts.

Also, I can tell he did his research. He put on The Doctor (No, Alice, not THAT Doctor) hat for writing all the medical bits and changed into The Criminologist hat for all the history lessons. And he kept The Sympathetic Father hat firmly in place from beginning to end. He helped us understand that a stubborn determination to believe the best about your children even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is not a weakness; it’s just parenthood.

Now, this part might sting a little.

I enjoyed the case studies, but I think I liked them TOO much. Ideally, historical tangents should advance and enhance the fictional aspects of the book, but in this case, the truth overshadowed the fiction. The case studies were so full of fact and nuance that they exposed the other chapters as not being fully fleshed out. It was an unflattering comparison, I’m sad to say.

My biggest complaint is not with the story itself . . . and maybe it’s not a fair complaint. But here I go complaining about it anyway. First of all, let me say that I realize this is an uncorrected proof. I expected some minor typos and typesetting quirks, and even though they drive me CRAZY (fun fact: professional copy editors do not come with an OFF switch), I kissed my red pen goodnight and sent it to bed. My issue was not the typos; it was the glaring inconsistencies. Maybe someone who is used to getting All The ARCs can tell me if that's normal, but in my experience working with publishers, by the time the manuscript gets to the proofing stage, making changes is expensive . . . so the big issues should be ironed out already.

I’ll give you an example of one of the most troubling inconsistencies I found, and then I’ll stop obsessing over it, because I don’t work for Doubleday (unless they’re hiring *nudge nudge*).
“He bought the gun in Long Beach, at a pawnshop called Lucky’s.” (p. 1)
“Last night he’d chosen the gun. An STI Trojan 9-mm he’d bought at a pawnshop in Sacramento. Lucky’s.” (p. 285)
These lines are pivotal to the story. One is literally the first sentence in the book; the other reiterates that first sentence, bringing a winding, arduous journey full circle. The fact that they don't match . . . well, that's a problem. I'll cross my fingers that this and the other little naughties will be wrangled in the finished book.

And now I’ve broken the big rule of reviewing and quoted from the uncorrected proof.

This is why we can't have nice things.
Criticisms aside, I DID enjoy this book. Overall, I deem it worthy of our precious reading time, if not a shoe in for any of the inevitable 2012 best-of lists.

SOURCE: Hawley, Noah. (2012). The Good Father. New York: Doubleday. [Tentative on-sale date: March 20, 2012]

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's worse than eating too much pasta? I WILL TELL YOU.

Hypothetical situation: You're on a deserted island for a month, living off of coconuts and berries and seaweed and a little fish and maybe a nice juicy bug here and there. You have quite enough food to survive, but you're a little concerned about the supply running low . . . and you can't stop thinking about pasta. Because you LOVE pasta and used to eat it every day. Then, one day, a luxurious cruise ship floats by your deserted island and rescues you. Once aboard, you're presented with a pasta BUFFET. You can't contain your glee. Maybe you get a little overeager. Maybe you eat ALL THE PASTA. Then what do you do? Well, you either projectile vomit OR you complain loudly about how much your stomach hurts and lament the birth of the man who invented pasta.

Now, let's say that "you" means "me," the deserted island is a dry spell in editing projects, and the pasta is three manuscripts due by the end of April.

In short, I said yes one too many times and ended up with too much on my plate.

Those of you whom I know in real life (whatever THAT means) may have to forgive me for retreating to my mind palace until May. Husband, if you're reading this . . . make a list of reasons you love me. You may need to refer to it later when you've forgotten who I am.

I still fully intend to participate in Alice's Woman in White read-along, although it may be the only book I read all month. And as for my weekly posts . . . I've always wondered how a lobotomy would affect my writing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Double Indemnity: A lesson in jumping to conclusions

Double Indemnity, what are you about?

Insurance agent Walter Huff is telling us a story, and we’re not quite sure what it’s about but we’re pretty sure it’s not good because he mentions a “House of Death” in the first paragraph. So here we have Walter, tried-and-true insurance man. Straight as an arrow . . . or so he would have us BELIEVE.

But wait . . . who’s this? A voluptuous lady with a husband she’s not overly fond of (but who is perfectly decent to her, I might point out). And what is this? You say she’s dropping hints about accident insurance? Run, Walter, run!

But Walter doesn’t run. Why, Walter, WHY?
“A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts.” (p. 10)
Oh. Well, then. I suppose you’ll have to do something crazy, won’t you, Walter? For what chance does a man have against a set of winding lady curves?

Murder plots: the basis of every healthy relationship
So Walter and this tall drink of water waste no time scheming to knock off her husband. Their plan is to make it look like a train accident so they can collect a double indemnity (train accidents are the most uncommon of all the many kinds of accidents and, thus, yield the biggest insurance payout). As an insurance agent, Walter has a specific body of knowledge that proves extremely useful in this endeavor.
“I know all their tricks. I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I’ll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. That’s all. When I met Phyllis I met my plant.” (pp. 29–30)
Around this point, I started working up some healthy indignation about Mr. Cain making The Woman look like a silly, bored housewife who needed The Big Strong Working Man to come along and handle her business. But I was wrong, dear readers, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. This is 125 pages of twists and turns, and those conclusions I jumped to were wrong, ALL WRONG.

Well played, sir.

SOURCE: Cain, James M. (1978). Double Indemnity. Toronto, Canada: Vintage.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby (this post is about a baby)

Here he is: the reason I put an entire country between me and my husband and my dogs and haven't done any work or reading since Thursday. This is the tiny, drunken man who has stolen my heart.

Camden Eli
March 8, 2012

I can't get over how perfect his widdle hands are.

The graceful new mother with her spawn.

Looook into my eyes. . . . I just made you ovulate.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An open letter to my friends on the Interwebs

Dear friends far and wide with whom I communicate virtually:

Tomorrow, I will be careening through the atmosphere in a metal tube on my way to Florida. There I will remain for 2 weeks.

My best friend has been growing a human, and he is about to emerge victorious from her womb (too graphic?). My duties during these 2 weeks will include the following:

1. Telling her she's pretty (this one is easy because she's quite pretty, indeed)
2. Bringing her burritos in the middle of the night
3. Telling her husband he's going to be fine
4. Chasing people away when she's too tired for visitors
5. Holding the baby and occasionally whispering in his ear, "You're really MY baby . . . but these people will take wonderful care of you"
6. Maintaining a cheery disposition

The reason I'm telling you all this is that I'm not sure how much of my time these duties will consume, which means I may not be as present online as I generally am. And if I DO by some chance snag a little computer time, I may be so exhausted from my best friend duties that I can't write a complete sentence.

I simply CAN'T risk making a typo. You understand.

Think of me often. I will be thinking of you and the glorious day when I shall return to the warmth of your virtual embrace (March 20 . . . mark it in your calendars).

I remain faithfully yours.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Him Her Him *Again* The End of Him (and my library patron disgrace)

I finished Him Her Him Again The End of Him last week, the day before it was due back to the library. I went online to renew it so I could actually reference the book while I wrote this post, and I got this message from the Los Angeles Public Library system: "You owed us $50 once 2 years ago. Sure, yeah, you PAID it. But we can never trust you again. NO RENEWALS FOR YOU."

My shame, dear readers, it consumes me.

So let me try to remember something about this book that I read a million years ago last week.

This is like the Seinfeld of books: clever, hilarious, but ultimately about nothing in particular. Patricia Marx is a comic writer for Saturday Night Live, and that may have something to do with why her book reads like a collection of comedic sketches (but, like, funny ones).

"Her" is a neurotic, underachieving American undergraduate at Cambridge University. "Him" is narcissistic philosopher Eugene Obello, the guy she falls for to a MOST unhealthy degree. Her obsession with him isn't deterred by his repellent personality or eventual marriage to another woman or the birth of his child or the advice of everyone in her life to cease any and all future communications with him. She explains her fixation in this way:
"Don’t think I didn’t go out with other guys during those years. But that isn’t this story. And besides, none of the guys is worth telling you about. None had read Zeno in the ancient Greek. None had even read Zeno. None usually had a copy of the Magna Carta in his pocket. None spoke about the joys of reciting poetry while looking out o’er the prow of a boat. None had 'learn to play didgeridoo' on his To Do list. None could sing the rules of cricket. None had brown eyes with kind of yellow-specky things. None kissed the way Eugene did, which wasn’t that special, I have come to see, but this was before I came to see that. None put salt on his pizza." (p. 124)
I could tolerate these characters ONLY in a fictional universe. If I knew people like this in real life, I would not find them amusing. I would slap them repeatedly in the face and change my phone number.

I think the tone of the book is what keeps it in Entertain-Me-With-Your-Shenanigans World and out of I-Can't-Just-Stand-By-While-You-RUIN-YOUR-LIFE Land. I'm convinced that this is what Steve Martin was aiming for with Shopgirl. But where his characters are self-involved and unlikable and the narrator  pretentious and aloof, Marx's characters are self-involved and unlikable and the narrator adorably self-deprecating.

Look at her being all quirky and whatnot.
"We were having instant coffee, which I found delicious because it was Dutch. It didn’t bother me that the coffee contained specks of crud—all the more bohemian. I later realized I’d been drinking metal fragments from the electric kettle. I am including this detail in case I get a mysterious disease and the doctors need help with the diagnosis." (p. 13)

You're weird. But I like you.
And also this:
"My grandmother also told me that she—my grandmother—believes everyone has a determined number of footsteps to use up in a lifetime, and, therefore, it is foolhardy to exercise since you will only exhaust your quota sooner and die." (p. 4)
I can get behind that theory, because it means I will live FOREVER.

And look at this alternate cover art! 

It looks as though she's intending to END him with a book. This amuses me.

SOURCEMarx, Patricia. (2007). Him Her Him Again The End of Him. New York: Scribner.