We Need to Talk About Kevin - even the title is intense, urgent, and upsetting. Don't get me wrong: this book is good. Oh yes, excellent writing, amazing character development, even unexpected humor at some of the darkest of moments. Kudos to Lionel Shriver. But man, this book is intense.
The premise: At fifteen years old, Kevin Khatchadourian orchestrates the killing of seven of his his high school peers, along with a teacher and a custodian. His mother, Eva, recounts his life leading up to the crime via letters to her husband, Franklin. Tracing her pregnancy and Kevin's birth, his odd and unsettling childhood, and then the years shortly before his killing, Eva dissects a mother's relationship with her son.
And man, is it haunting. Eva is smart, quirky, and frighteningly believable. Her horrific strories of the early years of raising her son are still tinged with a sort of motherly worry, even in the retroscpect of her child's terrible crime. I devoured the book, finishing it in a few days and sneaking in reading breaks when I should have otherwise been socializing. And the final pages are absolutely incredible.
Read it: We Need to Talk About Kevin - by Lionel Shriver
The woman at the local bookshop told me that she hasn't liked the selections for the Man-Booker Prize every since it added that pesky Man on the front. Before, she argued, when it was just the Booker Prize, the pickins were good. Now, she says, they tend to be more racy and raunchy - although still quite well-written - books.
And woooo... was she right. At least when it came to the pick for 2005.
The Line of Beauty is Alan Hollinghurst's tribute to rampant cocaine use and gay sex, with a little bit of sentimentality thrown in. Or maybe it goes the other way: sentimentality first, and then all that wild stuff second. Well, I can't decide.
Really, though, behind its flashy scenes and regular use of the word "bumshoving," The Line of Beauty has a wonderful, delicate side. The book is entertaining, but touching, and - although I would hesitate to ever say the book is a comedy - I found a few scenes where I laughed out loud.
The premise: Nick Guest is an inexperienced average Joe who moves to London to live with a politically powerful extremely rich family - The Feddens. Nick spent his Oxford years pining over the Fedden's son, Toby, who was Nick's ticket to the fancy, frightening world of the rich and famous. But then Nick meets another guy, and they develop a relationship. As he gains experience, Nick also develops a drug habit and then he starts dating a Lebanese millionaire. Somewhere in there, he talks a lot about art and furniture and feeling insecure.
Ok, so the plot sounds like a mess, but the overall picture is fluid and borderline epic. We grow with Nick as he has his first sexual experience, and we wince when he tries to hide his homosexuality from his family and certain friends. Then we move on up in the world with him, and celebrate as he incorporates his way into the Fedders' life. It's also a little nerve-wracking to go to big-shot parties (attended by Thatcher) alongside Nick as he continuously takes trips to the bathroom to powder his nose. But there are other, quieter moments that make this novel a bit more cozy and touching than most, and in the end, the drugs and sex are not what make this a great read. The book is sensitive and sad and seductive all at once.
Read it: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
A good friend of mine is writing her thesis on Russell Banks. I can't remember why, or what exactly she's discussing, but the fact that someone I consider intelligent would spend so much time thinking about the guy was enough to convince me to pick up The Darling, his most recent book.
I read it in four days, sneaking time to read it in between metro stops and waits at the eye doctor's. Usually, this kind of behavior means I REALLY love a book. But now, several weeks down the line, I still don't know what to make of The Darling.
The premise: Hannah Musgrave/Dawn Carrington is our protaganist. She spent a large portion of her life as the latter, even though she was born the former. Her identity was changed after/during her time with the Weather Underground - where she was lead to believe that she was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. From there, she is convinced to flee America with another Undergrounder, and the two of them set up shop in Ghana. After a short while, she heads out to Liberia, where she meets the man who will become her husband and she falls in love with some chimpanzees. Somewhere in there, you realize she's a cruel, heartless bitch, but you also hope she doesn't die when Liberia goes to pot.
Yes, the story really is as convoluted and hard to relay as it seems. Although there are moments where the writing is great and the book trucks along nicely, I had two issues with this novel:
1. I'm getting really tired of the story of white-(wo)man-discovers Africa. But what's worse, however, was that I felt this representation was just off somehow. Banks apparently spent quite a lot of time in Liberia researching for the book, but when it turned out that Hannah/Dawn was rubbing elbows with Charles Taylor and made privy to top-secret plans, I found the whole thing to be rubbish. And when she helped him escape from a US prison, I just... well... it was one step to far.
2. I generally appreciate when a man can write appropriately from a female perspective. I would most likely not put Banks in this camp. Although there are moments when he exhibits a fair amount of skill, the coldness of the protaganist in this book was just not convincing. She was an American woman, alone and isolated, in Liberia for much of the novel. Even after she had two sons, she remained cold and distant from them. The basic idea for Banks was to place her cunning above her emotions, but I have a hard time believing anyone can be so heartless.
Overall, I'm not upset I read it. I made it through the book and even found myself enjoying it at times. I just found it, well, a little bit too much. Somewhat OTT, I suppose. There was even a moment where I thought it bordered on trashy romance, but it quickly recovered. Still, I can't say I recommend it, even though I'm glad I read it myself. If you're into historical fiction, and into Africa, you might enjoy it. I took issue with some of the liberties he took with the story itself, but the fact of the matter is that the book is still well-researched and a pretty entertaining way to get a look inside recent Liberian politics - or at least get you familiar with the main players, if you weren't already.
Buy it, if you have read this far: The Darling by Russell Banks
This based-on-fact piece of historical fiction is written by Tracy Chevalier, the same author behind The Girl with the Pearl Earring (now a major motion picture). Although I haven't read her first book, I enjoyed her second one, and would recommend The Lady and the Unicorn to anybody looking to learn something in a (very) easy-to-read format.
In fact, the easiness-of-reading issue was probably my only issue with this book. I suppose I spend so much time reading "established" authors that I have a little bit of a hard time coming back to popular fiction, but I'll admit that this book was an entertaining read - it came in handy when I accidently showed up an hour early for my doctor's appointment, at any rate.
The synopsis: The story is of the design and development of the famous Le Viste tapestries, now located in the Musée Cluny in Paris. As a matter of fact, I had been passing copies of these tapestries for years, without knowing what they were or where from. In a moment of coincidence, a good friend explained the tapestries to me just days before my mother appeared and passed along this book to me.
The narrative rotates between different characters - the artist who designs the tapestries, the weaver family who actually makes them, and the nobles for whom they are intended - and Chevalier actually manages to pull off this feat quite well. I'll admit that the first chapter had me skeptical, but by halfway through the book, I found I was getting into the different personalities and their thoughts/fears/dreams/etc. In the end, you find yourself with severall different mini-stories, all handily woven together through the story of the (woven!) tapestries.
What I liked about this book - and this is terrible to admit - is that the pretext of it being "historical" made me feel a little less ashamed about reading what is really just a well-decorated soap opera. There's sex and lying and seduction and betrayal... overall all the good workings of a crappy woman's romance novel.
The Lady and the Unicorn is a notable step up from that, and I would read it again. It's perfect travel reading; I can see myself enjoying it on an airplane or at the beach. Don't expect great literature, but it's a good time.
The Lady and the Unicorn - Tracy Chevalier
I'm a little embarrased I wasn't familar with Coetzee's work before reading this novel. Coetzee is the only author to have one the Booker Prize twice, and is generally well-known amongst bookworms. Still, I didn't know his work nor his name, but I was happy to make the discovery.
As often happens in life, when you hear about something for the first time, you begin noticing it everywhere. In the case of JM Coetzee's novel, Disgrace, I first heard about it in a short interview with a respectable, well-read European. She was citing her favorite authors and books, and this novel was at the top of her list. Always on the lookout for new reads, I printed out the interview and took it with me to the used bookstore. When I couldn't find the book there, I more or less forgot about it.
A few days later, however, I stumbled across a mention of it in another article. Being reminded of the name was enough so that when I went to check out a local English bookstore, I picked it up.
At the checkout counter, the girl sighed heavily and said, "This book is so good. It's just... (she clutches her chest)... so... painful."
She wasn't being overdramatic. The writing is excellent, but reading the book is a bit like watching a car-crash unfurl in slow-motion. Everything is heavy, harsh, and only comes to feel heavier and harsher as the book progresses.
The premis: David Lurie, a semi-serious university professor and two-time divorcé, gets involved in a strange and awkward affair with a student. Eventually, she presses charges and he admits guilt, and is forced to leave his job. He spends his "leave of absence" with his daugher, Lucy, out in South Africa's Eastern Cape. And while at first he spends his time getting in touch with the earth and its animals, and discovering the harsh realities of living off the land, disaster soon strikes. David and Lucy are surprised one day by intruders who end up attacking them and their home, and the aftermath of the attack is almost as difficult to deal with as the attack itself.
The book is short, and I realize the snapshot of the story featured here would make you want to avoid it at all costs. But I found the book amazing - the writing style is what carries the narrative more so than the plot. Coetzee's writing is mature and fearless, and I regularly stopped to re-read sentences just because I liked the sound of them. I took this book with me everywhere, and finished it quickly while trying to savour it for as long as possible.
Lots of reviews mention this novel as painting a painful portrait of modern-day South Africa. And while, sure, that's definetly present, what I found much more poignant in the tale were the running themes of father/daughter relationships and animal rights/souls. Parts of this book are difficult to describe; as cheesy as it sounds, there were scenes that were more "felt" than pictured. Coetzee's writing is simple, but there is so much behind the words that it makes for a very interesting read.
Read it: JM Coetzee - Disgrace
I picked up Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain at the library on the advice of TheKnitter. She really liked the book, and she probably knows what she's talking about because she was a litterature major. So, if you want to, take her word for it.
Me, the lowly journalism major, I did not really like this book. I began skimming halfway through. I found the characters were cold and distant, and the story was not really thrilling to boot.
To illustrate why I didn't like this book, I am going to put up a short passage that I feel sums it up quite well:
If you liked that excerpt and would like a similar description involving any of the following:
then you're in for a book you'll love. Otherwise, I'd stear clear. If you're really stubborn, though, give it a try. Somebody must have liked it, or they wouldn't have decided to make a bad movie about it, right?
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
You most likely remember the cover of She's Come Undone, because it seemed to be everywhere in the 90's. I'm pretty sure the cover alone kept me from buying it. When I walked into the bookstore ten years later and saw the British cover (much better), I didn't even recognize the book.
The books was under the Staff Recommendations section of the store, and I read through all of the staff blurbs rather meticulously. I decided on She's Come Undone because its simple recommendation was: "I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!!" That seemed more enthusiastic than the recommendations that read, "In 19th centure Russia, a man finds himself in dire straights when..." or anything equally as exciting. So I went for it.
It was pretty good. Some parts were incredibly touching, others were equally as painful, and the overall book is satisfying. I always appreciate when male authors can write authentically from a female perspective, and Wally Lamb is no exception. In fact, the "About the Author" page in the back explains how he perfected the female voice; among his techniques was growing up surrounded by women and seeking out the opinion of women in his writing group. Whatever he did, it worked.
The synopsis: Told in first person, the story focuses on the fucked-up life of Delores Price. While everything starts out peachy, within the first few pages of the story, her handsome and charming father leaves her, her mother has a mental breakdown, and her upstairs neighbor does naughty things. It all unravels in a bit of a whirlwind, and Delores is left to pick up the pieces for the remaining years of her life.
The beautiful thing about this novel lies in Lamb's skills at character development. The mother we love we end up hating, but then we love her again, and then kind of hate her, but realize that we love her underneath it all. The grandmother is stiff as a board, but then becomes one of the most charming characters in the story. And so on.
The downside is that things get a little heavy (literally) at times, continuously dealing with Delores' attitude and her favorite technique of shutting out the world. Half of the book is centered around her obesity and what it costs her self-esteem and social life, which starts to wane after a couple hundred pages.
Still, certain parts of the book might have dragged a bit, but it was an overall good read. I enjoyed it, and I give it a B+. I wouldn't write "I LOVED THIS BOOK" if I were to make staff recommendations, but I will still put it on the recommended shelf.
Amazon: She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
I picked Audrey Niffenegger's book up just before heading to London. I spent half of the three-hour train ride sleeping and the other half reading this book, and we pulled into Waterloo before I even looked at my watch once. Even though I myself was travelling, The Time Traveller's Wife kept me entertained enough to consistently sneak in a read throughout my short stint in the city. It made me even look forward to having to wait around in the train station on my return trip, because I knew it would mean uninterrupted reading time. I devoured this book, and finished it a little over 24 hours after beginning it.
I would never say that it's amazingly written or destined to become a classic. It is, however, original and different, and pleasant to read.
The synopsis: A man, Henry, time travels against his own will. For some reason, he regularly comes to see the woman who is to become his wife (Clare). He first drops in on her when she is six and he is 42. The second visit comes a few months later when he is in his 30's. While time moves along chronically for Clare, it is more of a jagged, sputtering forward march for Henry, with unexpected rewinds. He even is occasionally visited by himself at various ages. But the story is less about Henry and his unique chronic time travel issues than it is about the developing love story between the two protagonists. It unfolds like delicate paper, and, despite their unique circumonstances, they suffer highs and lows like other, ordinary couples. Their relationship is so well-portrayed that it is what one remembers when retelling the story, and the time-travelling is just a mere backdrop.
Ok, so the time travelling part sounds trite and kind of weird with such a short summary, but the truth is that it somehow worked. It even became semi-believable at some point. Had this not happened, the book most likely would have been a big flop, and that fact alone testifies to Niffenegger's writing skills.
And although there is a slight science-fiction twist to the novel, it is more a modern-day philosophical love story than anything remotely fantastical.
Another added bonus: it takes place in Chicago, so if you know the area, it's kind of fun. Lots of musical references (especially to indie bands and such) and so on.
Read it. It's different, quirky, and manages to approach the topic of love without making me want to ralph. In fact, I found myself enamoured with the couple in question. That almost never happens.
Amazon: The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger