Category Archives: Book Reviews

Books: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver freaked me out from beginning to end. Every word, sentence, and page draws you into the head of Eva Katchadourian as she writes to her estranged husband about the story of their family and their son who goes on a murderous rampage.

Eva is a successful travel book publisher and entrepreneur, and her husband is an equally successful location scout. Pre-children they are the NYC couple you’re jealous of. They own a loft, she travels extensively to exotic locales, she runs her company and when she’s not doing that she and Franklin enjoy drunken soirees with their equally successful New York hipster friends. But the time arrives when the meaninglessness of their existence tugs at them and they decide to have a child.

Eva entertains motherhood reluctantly while Franklin turns into Daddy monster, a man who now only thinks about the needs of the baby. Eva from the beginning is diminished by her husband’s pivot to fatherhood and when Kevin is born she slides further into existential crisis when she fails to bond with her child.

Kevin, she believes, has it in for her, and as a child he poses a threat to her, her lifestyle and her marriage. His refusal to speak, until he delivers full and complete thoughts and sentences demonstrates to her the deviousness of his mind. He bides his time to agonize and frustrate his mother. At six she is still changing his diapers, awkwardly cleaning the poop of the too large boy who refuses to potty train….until one day he simply decides to do it. She thinks that all along he knows precisely what he needs to do but simply chooses not to in order to frustrate his reluctant and increasingly bitter mother. Kevin is smart and she knows it.

Meanwhile Franklin does everything he can to support and love the boy, driving a wedge between the once happy and in-love couple. Eva never loses the sense that Kevin is not what he seems, that he is one thing to his mother and another to his father. There is no one true Kevin. Kevin is a master manipulator incapable of being true to anything or anyone. And he is unkind,

By the time Kevin commits the ultimate horrifying crime you don’t know who to believe. Is Franklin right? Is Eva a monster who has nurtured her son’s cold animosity through her own dislike of the boy? And there’s Franklin who to me, never feels real or genuine. His “Hey Son let’s play” hits a false note every time. Does he counter his son’s oddness by overcompensating and creating his own version of Leave it to Beaver? And then there’s Eva….who’s distrust of her own child starts with her pregnancy and never abates. It’s hard to know who the real monster really is. Admittedly, I didn’t sleep much when I was reading this book. The question of who we really are and how monsters are created is at the heart of this book. I loved it and hated it at the same time. But I still think about the book and the fictitious Khatchadourian family, which makes it a provocative read.

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Books: Bill Browder, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

Bill Browder

The non-fiction I’m reading lately is proving to me that real life is weirder than fiction. The world really is a dangerous place!

Bill Browder, the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, discovers that his days of being a lucrative investment broker in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union is about to come to an abrupt end when he’s forbidden re-entry into the country he calls his home.

Through Hermitage Capital Browder becomes a prominent shareholder in numerous Russian gas companies, but his trail of research brings him in direct conflict with corrupt bureaucrats, law enforcement and Putin himself. His offices are raided, he’s accused of tax evasion and ultimately his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, is brutally murdered by the Russian state and a warrant is issued for Browder’s arrest.

Of course I’ve condensed hundreds of pages of this crazy story into three paragraphs so I’m not even beginning to do this book justice. Ultimately Browder turns activist in defence of Sergei and his tireless advocacy results in the passing of the Magnisky Act by Barack Obama. The act authorizes the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freezing their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S.

If there is an interesting thing about this book it’s just how nuts the whole story is. Like really? This is how the world of international investment and finance works? I guess so. And Bill Browder, is at the centre of it from the beginning when he saw the opportunity the Russian market offered to investors like himself and his wealthy clients. There is no question, he’s a driven guy. He’s either making crazy amounts of money or avenging his friends death. This man is a risk taker no matter what he does and there is something heroic if not a little crazy about this story.

The other “elephant in the room” is Russia. Russia is just a bit creepy these days with it’s wanting to take over the world by destroying western democracies. What we see is just the tip of the iceberg. I would love to have dinner and few drinks with Rob Mueller (I know, he’d never talk but one can dream). According to Bill Browder, Russia is a thug state. And that’s probably something we should all be just a little worried about. I give this book a thumbs up!

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Books: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The Guardian UK wrote a great review of this book so for a more fulsome analysis of this funny tale you can go here. I’m mostly here to tell you that if you’re in need of something light, funny and poignant to get you through the dark winter months then this might be the novel for you.

The novel is the story of Arthur Less, a soon-to-be fifty, recently single, almost failed middling novelist, who escapes heart break by accepting invitations for literary engagements around the world. During his travels he rediscovers himself and the real meaning of love.

Arthur is pitiful, there’s no question about it. But there is also something about him that is so well….flawed, and human.  Arthur has no illusions about himself  which is why I found myself cheering him on, and crossing my fingers that things might go his way. 

There are funny parts all along the way but the German chapter made me laugh out loud for the entire piece. So all in all, well worth the read!

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Cunard-liner-Lusitania-de-009

I was looking for something to read and I found this book on my night table. I’m not a big consumer of non-fiction unless it’s news so I wasn’t sure how I’d like this. The good thing is that I really liked it. Erik Larson weaves a tale of intrigue, filled with historic details and characters that come to life under his pen.

The historic details lend themselves to suspense. A luxury cruise liner leaves its New York harbour to sail for Liverpool in May 1915. The ship would sail through enemy territory where German U-boats were sinking enemy ships. In spite of the warnings by Germany that the seas around England were a war zone, the Lusitania sailed to Liverpool with barely a thought that it would be the object of a German attack. Little did they know that the rules of war were changing.

Larson gives a vivid snapshot of the wealthy passengers including theatre folks and book dealers, and established wealth on board the ship. You get to know the families, and why they’re there, how the children occupied themselves, and how many tried to survive the sinking of the ship.

Chapters alternate between the different elements of the story giving the reader a 360 degree view of the unfolding of events that culminated in the sinking of the ship.   The strength of the book lies in discovering  the characters behind the historic fact. The reader is introduced to the Captain of the U-boat, the characters who occupied the office that decoded German war messages, Winston Churchill makes an appearance as does Woodrow Wilson.

If there is a weakness in the book it’s in the portrait of Woodrow Wilson who appears as a grief-stricken love-lost bumbling idiot. The author definitely seems to have it in for him! Aside from that I found the book a compelling and great read.

My personal takeaways are:

  • that well-researched  non-fiction can be fabulous and all the more interesting because it happened.
  • In war people will  be pawns.
  • Details are important like knowing how to put your life jacket on properly. Many people lost their lives unnecessarily because of this.

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Poem of the Week: Distant Regard by Tony Hoagland via Alison McGhee

This is one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read.

Distant Regard by Tony Hoagland

If I knew I would be dead by this time next year
I believe I would spend the months from now till then
writing thank-you notes to strangers and acquaintances,
telling them, “You really were a great travel agent,”
or “I never got the taste of your kisses out of my mouth.”
or “Watching you walk across the room was part of my destination.”
It would be the equivalent, I think,
of leaving a chocolate wrapped in shiny foil
on the pillow of a guest in a hotel–
“Hotel of earth, where we resided for some years together,”
I start to say, before I realize it is a terrible cliche, and stop,
and then go on, forgiving myself in a mere split second
because now that I’m dying, I just go
forward like water, flowing around obstacles
and second thoughts, not getting snagged, just continuing
with my long list of thank-yous,
which seems to naturally expand to include sunlight and wind,
and the aspen trees which gleam and shimmer in the yard
as if grateful for being soaked last night
by the irrigation system invented by an individual
to whom I am quietly grateful.
Outside it is autumn, the philosophical season,
when cold air sharpens the intellect;
the hills are red and copper in their shaggy majesty.
The clouds blow overhead like governments and years.
It took me a long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,”
but I am grateful for it now,
and I am grateful for my heart,
that turned out to be good, after all;
and grateful for my mind,
to which, in retrospect, I can see
I have never been sufficiently kind.

For more information about Tony Hoagland, please read his obituary.

Thanks to Alison for sharing these beautiful poems far and wide.

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Poem of the Week: The Nutritionist by Andrea Gibson via Poetry Mistress Alison McGhee

The Nutritionist, by Andrea Gibson

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables,
said if I could get down thirteen turnips each day
I would be grounded, rooted.
Said my head would not keep flying away to where the darkness lives.

The psychic told me my heart carries too much weight,
said for twenty dollars she’d tell me what to do.
I handed her the twenty and she said, “Stop worrying, darling,
you will find a good man soon.”

The first psycho-therapist said I should spend three hours a day
sitting in a dark closet with my eyes closed and my ears plugged.
I tried it once but couldn’t stop thinking
about how gay it was to be sitting in the closet.

The yogi told me to stretch everything but the truth,
said focus on the out breath,
said everyone finds happiness
if they can care more about what they can give
than what they get.

The pharmacist said Klonopin, Lamictal, Lithium, Xanax.

The doctor said an antipsychotic might help me forget
what the trauma said.

The trauma said, “Don’t write this poem.
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.”

But my bones said, “Tyler Clementi dove into the Hudson River
convinced he was entirely alone.”

My bones said, “Write the poem.”
To the lamplight considering the river bed,
to the chandelier of your faith hanging by a thread,
to everyday you cannot get out of bed,
to the bullseye of your wrist,
to anyone who has ever wanted to die:

I have been told sometimes the most healing thing we can do
is remind ourselves over and over and over
other people feel this too.

The tomorrow that has come and gone
and it has not gotten better.

When you are half finished writing that letter
to your mother that says “I swear to God I tried,
but when I thought I’d hit bottom, it started hitting back.”

There is no bruise like the bruise
loneliness kicks into your spine
so let me tell you I know there are days
it looks like the whole world is dancing in the streets
while you break down like the doors of their looted buildings.
You are not alone
in wondering who will be convicted of the crime
of insisting you keep loading your grief
into the chamber of your shame.

You are not weak
just because your heart feels so heavy.
I have never met a heavy heart that wasn’t a phone booth
with a red cape inside.

Some people will never understand
the kind of superpower it takes for some people
to just walk outside some days.
I know my smile can look like the gutter of a falling house
but my hands are always holding tight to the rip cord of believing
a life can be rich like the soil,
can make food of decay,
turn wound into highway.

Pick me up in a truck with that bumper sticker that says,
“It is no measure of good health
to be well adjusted to a sick society.”

I have never trusted anyone
with the pulled back bow of my spine
the way I trusted ones who come undone at the throat
screaming for their pulses to find the fight to pound.
Four nights before Tyler Clementi
jumped from the George Washington bridge
I was sitting in a hotel room in my own town
calculating exactly what I had to swallow
to keep a bottle of sleeping pills down.

What I know about living
is the pain is never just ours.
Every time I hurt I know the wound is an echo,
so I keep listening for the moment the grief becomes a window,
when I can see what I couldn’t see before
through the glass of my most battered dream
I watched a dandelion lose its mind in the wind
and when it did, it scattered a thousand seeds.

So the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin
don’t try to put me back in.
Just say, “Here we are” together at the window
aching for it to all get better
but knowing there is a chance
our hearts may have only just skinned their knees,
knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming

let me say right now for the record,
I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance,
even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.

You, you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.

Raising your bite against the bitter dark,
your bright longing,
your brilliant fists of loss.
Friend, if the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other,
my god that is plenty
my god that is enough
my god that is so so much for the light to give
each of us at each other’s backs
whispering over and over and over,
“Live. Live. Live.”

 

 

To listen to Andrea Gibson perform this poem, click here.

For more information on poet and performer Andrea Gibson, click here.

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Poem of the Week: The Poet of Ignorance, Anne Sexton via Poetry Mistress Alison McGhee

The Poet of Ignorance, by Anne Sexton

Perhaps the earth is floating,
I do not know.
Perhaps the stars are little paper cutups
made by some giant scissors,
I do not know.
Perhaps the moon is a frozen tear,
I do not know.
Perhaps God is only a deep voice
heard by the deaf,
I do not know.

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gasses and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open the shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.

I had a dream once,
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams?

 

Click here for more information about the beautiful poet Anne Sexton.

Thank you Alison for sharing these beautiful poems.

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