12.23.2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk
About Kevin
Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin is going to haunt me for a while. Even though you know what's going to happen at the end, Shriver throws in a heartbreaking twist that, honestly, nearly had me in tears. Along with the dread the Shriver builds and builds as the narrator approaches that climax, that narrator also meditates on blame, hindsight, and--above all--guilt. Reading the dust jacket, you might think that this book is a product of its time, of those few years there were so many school shootings at the end of the millennium. But I think this book has a timeless quality in that, we are always going to wonder where human evil comes from. We're still wondering about Jack the Ripper and Hitler, aren't we?

The narrator, Eva Khatchadourian, tells her story in a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, over the course of a handful of months. She tells him of her life now, after that Thursday. (She always puts it in italics.) Once, Eva was a successful travel writer, with her own company that published a series of books for low budget travelers. In their mid-thirties, Franklin started to pester Eva about having a child. Eva gave in eventually, but she confesses to serious reluctance. She was never maternal. She didn't know what she was doing but, to a certain extent, she fell for the propaganda that of course she would love her own child.

Kevin, it becomes clear, is a sociopath. Even as an infant, he delighted in tormenting just about everyone. The first nanny quit after a day and they were blackballed from the agency after two years. Because Kevin behaves differently around him, and because he so wants to have a perfect family, Franklin believes that there is nothing wrong with Kevin. He thinks that Eva is exaggerating or is always thinking the worse of the boy when she tells him what the little spawn is up to. Reading about Kevin's early years, I was reminded of my mom's stories from kindergarten about the the boy in her class who, even at the age of six, had the look of pure evil about him.

Later, Eva writes about a civil suit lodged against her by of the parent of one of her son's victims. Because that parent so desperately wants someone to blame, they allege that Eva's bad parenting is the cause of Kevin's actions on that Thursday. Eva admits that she was a bad mother, but I think that's only because she thinks that good mothering is natural. She was not a natural parent. Part of that admission, I also suspect, comes from the fact that she can't like the little jerk. She doesn't love him the way other parents love their kids. But when you have a kid like Kevin, how can you teach him to feel empathy? To care about the feeling of others? She did everything she was supposed to, and Kevin still killed 11 people at the age of 16.

Eva was one of the few people who could see through Kevin's facade but, how can you predict something like that? He was very, very careful and very, very cunning. Even with hindsight, there were only a few things that could have tipped even the most suspicious person off. When I read Kevin's line from that day ("Sure you don't want to say good-bye to Celie one more time?" (p. 365)), even I read it as just another sarcastic comment. Now that I've finished the book, that line chills me to the bone.

This book, in my reading, asks two vexing questions (with a lot of corollaries). First, what does it mean to be a good mother? What's normal when it comes to being maternal? For Eva, with her deep seated reluctance, it never comes naturally. She expected to love him when he was born. (But again, with a kid like Kevin, can you ever hope to be a normal parent?) She freely admits that she resents the little shit. To the extent that Kevin is able to feel, he seems to resent her right back. And there is little doubt that Kevin is aware of what he is doing when he torments others. He knows what he is doing is wrong.  He destroys a room that Eva put together with care, because he can't understand why people get attached to anything. He doesn't like anything or anyone, but Eva is the only one he will admit this to. Later, he begins to commit small acts of violence against other kids (always without witnesses and no one can ever definitively prove anything). He talks a girl with eczema into clawing at her own skin until she bleeds. He kills his little sister's pet and then, worse, destroys her left eye with drain cleaner. And then, there's that Thursday. So again, the sub-question again, how do you teach empathy to someone who is incapable of feeling it? How can you punish someone who isn't attached to anything and who you don't dare hit?

Parenthood is a source of serious anxiety for people. In my observation, there are so many parents trying so hard not to mess up their kids. There are those parents who compete with each other to be the best, to raise the best kids. With all this pressure, is it any wonder that Eva feels the stress she does? That she feels such severe guilt? She seems to get as much punishment from the people of her town as Kevin does in his juvenile facility. For some reason, no one seems to see the depths of Kevin's sociopathy--perhaps because everyone gave the little schmuck wide berth when he was on the outside, as if they sensed something was seriously off about him.

The second question that this book addresses--though not in such depth as the questions about motherhood--is: where does the evil to commit acts like this come from? Is it purely mechanical? Are sociopaths missing parts of their brain? Or are they created by their upbringing and their environments? As I said above, we're still asking this question about some people. And I don't think we'll ever get a definitive answer. In the case of Kevin, Shriver shows that some people were probably always going to go bad. They were born that way. No amount of care or mothering will change them, because sociopaths don't think the way we do. Perhaps with some criminals, upbringing does play a part.

Like with most people, who you are is probably a combination of both nature and nurture. But that still doesn't answer the question of where real evil comes from. The most clinical answer I can think of is that they're missing parts of their brains or psyches, especially those parts that allow us to feel for each other, to make attachments, to sympathize. They're probably also missing those parts that make us want to belong, to follow society's basic rules. Without at least those two parts, there's nothing to stop them from committing whatever atrocities they can think up.

 Throughout the book, various characters ask Kevin why. He gives as many answers as he has askers. The only time I think we get close to a real reason is when Kevin admits to his mother that it's been so long that he doesn't really remember. To me, that means that it wasn't just one thing and/or there was no reason that we can really understand. Kevin has an evil in him. It was going to come out sooner or later.  

We Need to Talk About Kevin is going to haunt me for a while.

12.18.2011

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

The Tiger's Wife
The Tiger's Wife
Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife is a book you could spend years unpacking. There is a central plot, but the action of this book curls around that small plot so that what really grabs you is all that back story rather than what's happening in the novel's "now."

The plot that frames the novel is simple enough to explain. A young doctor, Natalia, is on her way to an orphanage after her country split itself apart in a war when she learns that her grandfather has died in a small town. Her grandmother is adamant that Natalia retrieve his belongings, which she does after tangling with some local gypsies who are in the process of locating and reburying a long dead cousin. While all this is going on, Natalia tells her grandfather's story, of his meetings with the deathless man, and his relationship with the tiger's wife of the title. Through telling his story, Natalia tells the story of her country during the twentieth century, a story that reflect the history of any number of southern Eastern Europe.

 Two things really struck me about this book, and they both have to do with the role of specific kinds of stories. First, there is the recurring theme of superstition. Superstition is everywhere in this book. Aside from the fact that this book is very definitely set in the twentieth and possibly early twenty-first century, there are scenes with villagers that sound like they could have happened any time in the last thousand years the way they go on about devils and rituals.

Superstition provides an explanation for crop failures and too long winters. The tiger that roams the ridges and kills livestock is a devil, and the deaf-mute girl they call the tiger's wife is his accomplice. The tiger and his wife give the villagers a tangible target for their worry and their hate, rather than the actual, complex causes. Even in Natalia's present, superstition is still there. The gypsies she tangles with are reburying their cousin because they believe that cousin is haunting them and causing their children to get sick. When she tries to reason with them, she hits a brick wall time and again until she gives in and helps them (though she does it on the condition that they bring their kids into the local clinic for treatment).

Obreht shows the reader repeatedly how stubborn people are about their traditions and beliefs. The only way that anyone can achieve a real solution is to manipulate those superstitions. Said another way, you just have to go with it to get anywhere.

Second, there is the inescapable grasp of history. This country is steeped in it's own history in a way that I don't think a lot of Americans have felt. I certainly haven't. The stories and adventures and tragedies of the pass stick around in this country. Several characters remark on the fact that they have always either been at war or are recovering from one and waiting for the next one to begin. As Natalia tells her grandfather's history, there are connections and hints of connections. Everything is tied together: her grandfather, the butcher who brought the tiger's wife to the village, the apothecary, and the tiger itself. Though told separately, they're really the same story--just told from different perspectives and at different points.

Perhaps it's because I've moved around a lot, or I've lives in biggish towns and cities all my life, I've never felt the connection to a place the way that the characters in this book do. This novel shows how the current generation has roots that stretch back over the decades and centuries. Though Obreht never names the country where this novel is set, it feels very real, like this country could really exist. After reading this book, I wonder what it would be like to have roots like that, to live somewhere where my family has lived since anyone can remember. On the one hand, I think it could feel very smothering, as though you have to shoulder the mistakes of your ancestors because everyone can remember them. On the other, I can see how one could feel a strong sense of belonging, to be a part of a rich history and tradition. In this book, I think the role of history is that it provides a slightly more rational way of explaining how we all got where we are.

My reading of all this is that The Tiger's Wife is about the conflict between superstition and reason, and about its symbiosis. It's a very complex tale, and I think it would take a couple more readings to parse it all out.

I want to end this review with a very arresting passage from the end of the book, because I can't express what Obreht has done in this book nearly so well as Obreht did originally. But I think this passage reflects that symbiosis between rational, objective history and irrational, subjective superstition:
There is, however, and always has bee, a place on Galina where the trees are thin, a wide space where the saplings have twisted away and light falls broken and dappled on the snow. There is a cave here, a large flat slab of stone where the sun is always cast. My grandfather's tiger lives there, in a glade where the winter does not go away. He is the hunter of stag and boar, a fighter of bears, a great source of confusion for the lynx, a rapt admirer of the colors of birds. He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger's wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore. (337*)
* From the 2011 Random House hardback edition.

12.11.2011

Tiffany Aching Series, by Terry Pratchett

I read these during November, but they're too good to let pass without a post. Terry Pratchett has long been a favorite author of mine. But I think he has achieved something special with the Tiffany Aching series. This quartet of novels, I think, should be required reading for every young teenage girl. The witch-in-training, Tiffany, is a great role model for young girls because of her high levels of common sense and her strong sense of responsibility.

The Wee Free 

Men
The Wee Free Men
The first book in the series, The Wee Free Men, takes place when Tiffany is nine years old. She is the daughter of a long line of shepherds who have lived on the Chalk for centuries. Tiffany is capable, above all else. She's not particularly nice, in that she does not suffer fools gladly and she doesn't care overmuch for her snot factory of a younger brother, but she does care deeply in her own way. Even at nine years old, Tiffany wants to see justice done. When her brother is kidnapped by fairies, she does everything in her power (and even some things that she thought were beyond her) to get him back. It might sound a little grim, but this book is hilariously redeemed from that grimness by the Wee Free Men of the title: six inch high pixies that will steal everything that isn't nailed down. (If it is nailed down, they take the nails, too.) The Wee Free Men help Tiffany in her quest had provide the reader with some typical Pratchett-like comic relief. At the end of the book, Tiffany realizes that she has what it takes to be a witch. In Pratchett's Discworld, that means that you're willing to do what needs to be done, what is right.

A Hat Full of Sky
A Hat Full of Sky
In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany begins her apprenticeship and learns more about the practical side of witchcraft. (About 97% of witchcraft in this world is practical.) After her first magical battle in the first book, Tiffany finds family visits, veterinary medicine, and all the rest dull and--frankly--beneath her. She wonders, if she is capable of magic, why should she be the one to clip lonely old men's toenails? I supposed you could say that, while the first book was about doing what needed to be done because no one else could, this book is about learning how to deal with the responsibility of power. That is, just because you can, it doesn't mean that you should. Tiffany learns that lesson the hard way when she is possessed by a spirit that seems to be composed entirely of pride. Once again, Tiffany is assisted in her fight by the Wee Free Men.

Wintersmith
Wintersmith
In the third book, Wintersmith, Tiffany continues her apprenticeship and learns an important lesson about what happens when you don't stop to consider the consequences of your actions and the dangers of thinking you know everything. It's a small thing, just a dance. But when Tiffany jumps into the middle of an age's old ritual, she suddenly finds herself responsible for some seriously unseasonable weather and the bitterest winter anyone has ever seen. With the help of the Wee Free Men, Tiffany has to put the balance of the seasons back to rights. It's a hard lesson, owning up to your mistakes and then fixing them--especially when the screw up is on this kind of scale. While other adults could have helped get her out of the jams of the first two books, there really isn't anyone else that can help put things right. Even the Wee Free Men can't do much more than give her minor assistance.

I Shall Wear 

Midnight
I Shall Wear Midnight
In the last book, I Shall Wear Midnight, we find that it's not Tiffany who needs to learn a lesson--but her people. This is the darkest book in the quartet. In this book, Pratchett conjures a terrifying villain: the Cunning Man. The Cunning Man used to be a person, before he became the personification of people's fears of witches. As the Cunning Man begins to manifest once more, Tiffany is being worked to the bone, doing all the unpleasant tasks of taking care of people that other people just don't want to do. And she does it all without so much as a thank you. More than that, some people actually start to resent her. They feel that she bosses them around. She makes them uncomfortable. She does have the help of the Wee Free Men and of the more senior witches in the land, but once again, there are some things that Tiffany has to do herself. She is only one who can defeat the Cunning Man. It is rather satisfying how things start to fall apart when Tiffany can't fulfill her self-appointed duties and people learn how much they need her. Even though it's a dark book, it has a delightfully warm ending.

I really wish that these books had been around when I was younger. Tiffany is a such a strong person, that I think she inspires strength in others. With a few exceptions, like Katniss Everdeen, there are few other female role models in young adult fiction that I think are truly great. If you know a young girl in need of something to read, recommend these.

The Road to Bedlam, by Mike Shevdon

The Road to 

Bedlam
The Road to Bedlam
Mike Shevdon's The Road to Bedlam picks up some nine months after the first book. Niall is learning to be a warder while his girlfriend gestates their first child. This sequel is just as interesting and enjoyable to read as the first book in the series. It builds on what the first book started, giving more details into an alternate past where the British government made a pact with their more outre inhabitants.

Shortly after the introduction catches us up on Niall's life to date, it divides into a couple of different plots. First, Niall's daughter by his first wife is involved in an accident at school that later--apparently--takes her life. But Niall soon learns that she has been abducted by people who know how to block his magic. Second, enemy Feyre arrive for "peace talks" and proceed to chase Niall's girlfriend, Blackbird, across London and Shropshire. Third, Niall is sent to investigate weird happenings in small fishing town. It's all rather a lot to keep track of, but it makes for a thrilling read.

After Blackbird is saved from her pursuer and the mystery in the fishing town are wrapped up, there is a fantastic climax at Porton Down. Even if the rest of the book weren't that great, this ending would more than make up for it. Not only are the fight scenes gripping to read through, but Shevdon also reveals more of his secret history. As in the last book, there are references to an eight hundred year old agreement between the British government and the Feyre. In this book, we learn that maybe, just maybe, that agreement is starting to crack. The humans might be looking for a way out of their deal. If nothing else, this revelation will bring me back for the next book.

The Left of God, by Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of 

God
The Left Hand of God
Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God starts out promisingly. The first third of the book is really quite interesting. I suppose I kept reading in the hopes that this book would live up to its beginning. Hoffman introduces us to his protagonist (who is surprisingly antagonistic) in a very harsh monastery that is training young boys into a fanatical army. This introduction is the most original part of the book. The monks--Redeemers, they call themselves--are in a centuries long war with people they only refer to as Antagonists or heretics. Our protagonist, Cale, escapes one night with his friends after murdering one of the Redeemers in the middle of an unexplained and macabre vivisection.

 After that escape, however, the novel starts to wander. Moreover, it also starts to incorporate names that jar you right out of the narrative if you know anything about European history and geography. I read a comment on the Amazon page for this book, and one of those commenters had it exactly right. It's like Hoffman put a textbook in a blender and used that to name things in his book. There are (and I am not making this up): Norwegians and Spanish; cities and places named Memphis, York, and Stamford Bridge; and characters with titles like Gauleiter and gangs named after the Lollards. Every time the novel seemed to settle down, one of these names would get dropped in like a girder on train tracks. Those names, I'll admit, were part of the reason I kept reading. They were so startling, that I thought there must be a reason Hoffman was using them. As far as the first book in this series goes, there is none.

Cale and his comrades pretty much land on their feet in Memphis after their capture. Cale manages to worm his way into a position of power after saving a bigwig's daughter from the Redeemers. There isn't much of an overarching plot or motive to connect the events of the second two thirds of the book. I kept waiting for one, but all I got were hints. It's clear that more will be revealed in later books. But given the fact that Hoffman can't even be bothered to come up with original names of things, I'm not sure I will bother.

So, if nothing else, I hope this review keeps you from wasting your time.

12.04.2011

The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman
The Snowman
After spending a lot of November reading fantasies, I decided to change things up by reading a mystery recommended to me by my mum. I'm really glad I did. If it wasn't a Sunday, I would have gone straight to the library after finishing it to pick up the rest of the books in the series. Jo Nesbø's The Snowman is not the first novel to feature Inspector Harry Hole, but it wasn't hard for me to get up to speed.  

The Snowman is a terrifically tense Scandinavian mystery set in Oslo. (Because I have family from Norway, it was fun to spot familiar names.) At first, it seems like just another serial killer novel. Inspector Harry Hole, one of the few zen detectives* I've come across, is tasked with investigating what appear to be puzzling missing persons cases. But someone is killing these women and has been for a long time (although only a few bodies are found). There is, of course, pressure from the top brass and from the press to solve the case once it becomes clear that there is a serial murderer running around. Hole also has to deal with his own demon; he is a recovering alcoholic who does not attend meetings. He's relying on sheer willpower to resist temptation.

 Nesbø has a terrific way of revealing clues and details in such a way that you start to see what's going on well before the rest of the police figure it out--but you won't figure out who did it until the very end. Nesbø gives us no less then two spectacular twists that lead us all down the wrong path until he decides to reveal the real killer. The whole plot grows up organically around you and feels utterly real. Not only do we get a twisty, turning mystery plot, but Nesbø has a knack for pacing that kept me reading for hours. I could not put it down for the entire last third. I had to see what happened next!

Harry Hole is another part of what makes this book work. He seems like such a real person, with realistic flaws and hopes. He's just as morose as you'd expect from a Scandinavian detective, but he doesn't make you depressed as you ride around on his shoulder as the plot unfolds. He's got a very interesting mind. As I said before, he's a zen detectives. So it seems like he does very little to advance the investigation. In fact, he explicitly refuses to use the normal methods that his superior expects. According to Hole, too many details get in the way of the case. He knows that the killer is too smart to be caught by little mistakes. Every clue they do find is likely to be planted. Hole listens to his instincts, lets details percolate at the back of his head until they make sense. It makes for a very interesting and unusual reading experience.

I am so going to the library tomorrow.

 * Zen detectives are investigators that don't rely so much on forensics to solve the case. Instead, they tend let events develop around them and intuit their way towards the criminal. They are almost the complete opposite of ratiocinators like Sherlock Holmes.

Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon

Sixty-One Nails
Sixty-One Nails
Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails is billed as a Neverwhere for this generation. While I can't entirely agree with that reviewer's statement (we are talking about Neil Gaiman and who can match him?), I have to say that this is a very engrossing read. I need to go back to the library and get the next book in the series.

Niall Petersen works in the City of London. There's nothing out of the ordinary in his life; he's very unremarkable--just another divorce with ex-wife issues. One morning on the way to work, he suffers a heart attack and dies on the Underground. He is revived by a woman who insists that he's a doctor and that he doesn't need an ambulance. This is just the first bit of weirdness in a long series of weird events in Niall's life. In fact, the heart attack is the last normal thing that happens to him.

 After dying, Niall finds out that he's the latest entrant into a long-standing shadow war between feyre courts. It takes him a long time to be convinced of this, but when something inhuman tries to kill him again that very night, Niall starts to believe. The woman who revived him is his reluctant guide in this new world. Like Neverwhere, Sixty-One Nails is set mostly in the parts of London that most people don't pay attention to. It also incorporates odd bits of English history (like quit rents) and builds them into the plot. I love books that teach me trivia.

We get to explore this new world and its complicated rules and magic along with Niall. We end up racing all over London and Shropshire as Niall (now called Rabbit) and his mentor Blackbird try to save humanity from very horrible deaths. Even though there is some fairly incredible acts of magic in this book, Shevdon has done a remarkable job of making it all believable and tense. There are a couple of scenes towards the end where you really believe that Niall and Blackbird could lose to the  feyre nightmares.

I really started to enjoy this book after I stopped comparing it to Neverwhere. As I said, how can anyone else live up to that level of imagination? If you do pick up this book, ignore the blurbs on the back.

The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson

I took a break from posting to participate in NaNoWriMo and now it's been so long, I'm not quite sure how to start these.

The Alloy of Law
The Alloy of Law
The Mistborn trilogy was the best piece of fantasy literature I've read in a long time. It was original, with fantastic characters and a terrific plot. When it ended, I was sad that it was over. But when I heard that there would be a new book set in the same world, I got excited to see what happened after the end of the trilogy. The Alloy of Law takes place about 300 years after the end of the last Mistborn book. Without the Lord Ruler and the force of Ruin suppressing innovation and life, progress has roared ahead. Just a couple of centuries later, the world is in the midst of a thriving industrial revolution. While the first three books were solidly fantasy stories, The Alloy of Law has elements of the Western and detective genres.

The book opens at the final stages of a man hunt. Wax Ladrian, the law in those there parts, is tracking down a gruesome serial killer. Things go horribly wrong, and Wax chooses to return to the capital city to help restore his family's fortunes. Once there, Wax feels uncomfortable living with all the luxury his apparently spendthrift uncle left behind since he has spend the twenty years of his life bring order to the frontier. When a series of mysterious train robberies and kidnappings captures his attention, Wax has a very hard time not investigating them.

 This novel really takes off when Wax gives in and starts to investigate after a very spectacular attempt on his life. After that, it's a wild ride full of shoot outs, fights to the death, and dastardly deeds. It's not like the original series at all, thought it shares the same world. And I really appreciate that. This is one of the things I really like about Sanderson, that he's always trying something new and original. The book ends with a strong hint of another book featuring Wax, so I look forward to what he comes up with next for this character.

(I would write more, but it's been a couple of weeks since I read the book.)