Review: Do We Need To Talk About Kevin?

Finally a review not only for a book that has already been published, but for one that’s been around for a while. I seem to be late to this particular party.

Before it was accepted for publication, Lionel Shriver’s dark and provocative book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, was rejected by over 30 publishers. They objected that the narrator – Eva – was ‘unattractive,’ and that no one would want to read about a mother who failed to form a bond with her son, who, in fact, disliked him.

Indeed, it’s not an easy book. Apart from picking apart traditional ideas about motherhood, the book is ultimately about the brutal, cold-blooded, and premeditated murder of 7 high school students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker by one, 15 year-old Kevin Katchadourian.

Unlike other fiction books on the subject of high school killings – like Jodi Piccoult’s Nineteen Minutes – We Need To Talk About Kevin doesn’t try and make us understand the killer’s viewpoint, painting him as an outcast, a victim of school bullying who is lashing out at his tormentors. Instead, Shriver asks whether parents can be blamed for their children’s actions. Are you born a psychopath? Or does your upbringing make you into one? Is it Eva’s bad mothering that causes Kevin to become a mass murderer?

Despite all this, the book became a sensation. With an initial publicity budget near zero, the book started by selling slowly, until word of mouth turned it into a US, and then an international, bestseller. Then in 2005, it won the Orange Prize for fiction and now the film adaptation is the star of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Everyone, it seems, is talking about Kevin.

Is it just the shocking and appalling content that has people hooked? Apparently not. Shriver’s prose is not only finely-honed and polished, it also often richly poetic. Her attention to detail is legendary and is used to great effect in the novel. I have read complaints that the book reads as if Shriver sat down with a thesaurus and used it at every opportunity, but I associated her wide vocabulary more with a need to be exact than a desire to show off. Perhaps that’s because I imagine I would write similarly myself. Her characters might not be likeable – Kevin is truly disturbing and Eva resolutely refuses to bow to our expectations of her innate, maternal core (which troublingly I didn’t take issue with at all, I might hate a child like Kevin too) – but they are compelling, and despite their strangeness, somehow feel vividly real. In short, like the film, the book is compulsive and chilling, and if you are disquieted, you are also unable to stop.

One wise reviewer has said that Shriver forces her readers to look inside themselves and then run away from what they find. It’s true, the book presents some uncomfortable truths to its reader, not just about juvenile murder, but also about motherhood and nature versus nurture. It breaks taboos and deals with difficult, complex issues in fine, highly literary language, and (perhaps most worryingly of all), refuses to give the readers an easy answer on who is to blame for a child’s murderous actions. As Shriver says, the verdict is up to the reader. One thing is for sure, it seems we must, indeed, talk about Kevin.

Advertisements

Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

This book is being published in England by my idols Virago Press, and should be on UK shelves by end of March. The Hebrew edition will be published by ours truly, but I don’t yet have a tentative date. Will post when I do…

 

Grace Winter, newly married to the rich and handsome Henry, is one of 39 survivors on a lifeboat after the wreck of the Empress Alexandra. The book opens with her standing trial for murder along with two of the other female survivors, though we don’t know of whom or any of the other circumstances, and the book returns immediately to the moments following the shipwreck. Luckily, one of the 39 on the lifeboat was Mr. Hardie, a sailor from the ship who takes immediate control of the boat and its passengers given his knowledge of the sea and clear thinking in a crisis. At first he insists on their remaining near the wreckage to ensure that they will be picked up by the inevitable rescuers, but as more days pass and there is no apparent rescue attempt, he allows that they may as well try and sail for land. As the days pass Hardie warns his charges that they are at over-capacity, and that in the event of bad weather the boat will capsize. He suggests volunteers to throw themselves overboard for the good of those left in the boat, and thus begins the main moral dilemma of the book. The narrative continues to switch between Grace standing trial and the torturous, sometimes hallucinatory days in the lifeboat, where the passengers by turns console and connive against one another. Won’t give much more away, but suffice it to say Rogan keeps the reader engaged in the plot despite the limitations of her setting (which actually work for her, in my opinion) and the temptation to go overboard (‘scuse the pun) with being philosophical.

The Lifeboat is a tightly plotted novel that works both as a psychological thriller and as story addressing an impossible moral dilemma. The highly particular circumstances giving rise to this dilemma do nothing to reduce its relevance or immediacy to a reader, and the ‘closed-room’ setting of a lifeboat allows Rogan to explore the dynamics of human relationships at their most real and raw. This she does skillfully, mediating everything through Grace’s strange passivity so that it feels both removed and hyperreal.

It’s also a book about unreliable narrators and unstable, variable versions of the same events. Though Grace is a likeable narrator, she doesn’t come across as reliable – even by her own estimation. She frequently asserts her own uncertainty regarding her memories of the events in the lifeboat, but the reader (and those around her) are never quite sure when she is posturing and when she is truly in the dark about her own motivations or actions.

What Rogan does particularly well is show how Grace’s ‘God helps those who help themselves’ philosophy applies both to her situation pre and post shipwreck. This in turn makes Grace (with all her unreliability) very credible and convincing, and the fine balance Rogan strikes between depicting her admirable tenacity in insisting on taking control of her life and her acceptance of her own vulnerability is pitched perfectly (again, no pun intended…they’re all just bobbing up unintentionally).

The other characters are also well drawn, but Rogan’s real success lies in how she portrays the relationships and interactions between the different personalities on the boat. These are consistently complex, convincing and engaging, and Rogan manages to make them both inevitable in the context of the psyches she has assembled, and also strangely supernatural – as with Mrs. Grant’s curious hold on the passengers of the boat, by turns appearing almost mystical and at others merely the absolute power a parent holds over their dependents.

Above all, instead of using the characters as mouthpieces for philosophical discussions of the moral dilemmas produced by this life or death situation, Rogan turns them into desperate children who decide based less on careful consideration and dry discussion than impetuosity, fear, caprice or the desire for approval.

The structure of the book also functions perfectly to highlight the slow passing of the days and the nights in the lifeboat, and the juxtaposition between the moral question playing out in the boat and then rehashed in the courtroom dramatizes precisely one of the central questions Rogan seems to be asking in the book – how do certain situations impact our ideas about what is acceptable and what is not.

The book is not without its entertaining moments, and Rogan’s writing is accomplished, the dialogue feeling authentically ‘of’ the historical period. There were a couple of moments where Grace seemed to be describing moments straight of Titanic, but the believability of Rogan’ setting didn’t suffer as a result. The Lifeboat was a quick, clever read and I would recommend keeping an ear to the ground for its publication.

For more info on the book or the author, click here.

Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

This book stands for one of the best things about my job, when among the good and the bad you come across something truly gem-like. The book isn’t out yet but I highly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for it. Click here for the author’s blog and more info about his work. Below is the ‘official’ blurb and then my take on the book.

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in a nearly abandoned hospital in war-torn Chechnya, where Sunni Muslim separatists are waging a desperate campaign against Russian forces responsible for the death or “disappearance” of hundreds of thousands of Chechen loyalists. Staffed only by a tough-minded doctor who has returned from England in search of her missing sister, the hospital becomes a refuge for an orphaned girl and the neighbor who rescues her.In the final days of December 2004 in the village of Eldár, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces in the middle of night. Fearing for her life, their neighbor Akhmed – a failed physician – flees with her to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja Ivanova Stretsy, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees.  Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonya reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness which unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate. The plot hinges on two surprising elements: a Russian pistol and a souvenir from Buckingham Palace.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beautifully written. Marra deals with horrific scenes of torture and humiliation with a delicate poignancy that doesn’t detract from the horror but rather clarifies and intensifies it. Even the scene where Khassan holds a knife to his sleeping son’s throat is shot through with so much love that the reader feels every agony of Khassan’s dilemma as if it were their own. Marra offers the reader no easy allegiances, and his characters fail each other time and again. But they also make incredible sacrifices for one another, and ultimately his vision is a redemptive one.

His plot is well-crafted, slowly revealing the connections existing between the characters that had been there all along almost without their knowledge. He does a good job of balancing between how much the reader versus the characters know, so that though the reader is usually one step ahead they are also kept in anticipation of the final revelation. Another success of the book is Marra’s tendency to slide into mini-histories and mini-futures of incidental characters. He will suddenly digress away from dialogue or plot to remark that it has been ‘3 years, 2 months since x did y,’ or that in ’30 years time x would return to this spot with her children.’ This locates the novel in the middle of a long string of events and circumstances, choices and coincidences (a constellation of vital phenomena perhaps) that make up the collective story of the Chechen people. This technique also highlights the act of storytelling and self-narrativizing that all the characters do within the novel, as they attempt to try and find a way to deal with their reality.

While Marra’s plot effortlessly weaves together diverse characters, backstories, locations and even objects, the real wonder of the book is his writing.  His use of language is skillful, sharply-honed and a pleasure to read. He manages to strike the right balance between incredibly haunting language and the exigencies of keeping the plot moving. His imagery is by turns moving and beautiful – ‘his lips were two slats of sunlight on her forehead’ – absurdly comic, or horrific – ‘two spoonfuls were missing from his face’ – but always innovative and enjoyable. He describes family relationships, societal relationships and the bonds between friends very realistically, and never allows himself or the reader to sympathize too easily with any character.  The book establishes a good pace and then maintains it, and the characters are engaging and gripping enough that even their inner reflections make for compelling reading.

Though I’m not one for recommending a book because it’s about a subject you ‘really ought to know more about,’ the fact that Marra’s novel so effectively portrays the Chechen experience is yet another compelling reason to read this book. An all round winner.

A Subtle Argument

In one clear sentence, Benjamin Lee Whorf crystallized clearly what has been said in much more arcane and confusing language by many others:

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”

[…]

What happens, then, when you move to another country and learn to speak a new language? Suddenly, the scope and shape of your reality changes. In my case, it seems to have shrunk.

For the full post at The Times of Israel, click here.

Reaping The Rewords: A Twitter Story

A couple of days ago I tweeted that I had started Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. Being the pro-active social media kind of guy he seems to be, he retweeted me. Then yesterday he sent me a message that eventuated in an email exchange about Mr. Peanut, which I love, which comes out today in Israel, which I’m very proud to be publishing at Kinneret and which I am excited to be marketing.

Now I’ve been on Twitter for a while, and after an initially quiet ‘consumer’ period eventually I also got into it and started tweeting and linking away myself. It seems much more exciting, interesting and dynamic than Facebook has become, and I enjoy being able to be professionally social rather than personally social (which I’ve often found can be a bit of a drag, bookwormy hermit that I am).

How lovely to ‘follow’ someone instead of ‘friending’ them. I don’t want to be your friend (at least not yet), I want to share ideas with you. It’s been wonderful to feel surrounded not by acquaintances whose every vagary of existence pops up on my now redundant news feed, but instead by like-minded people who are also happy to spend hours of time reading articles about books and publishing and writers. It was also a pleasant, if slightly intimidating surprise to realize just how much information is out there. This stuff was interesting, and it was useful. It made the internet into an enriching, mutually beneficial space, rather than an arena for egotistical me-me-me-ing.

Now of course there are people that use Facebook in the way I use Twitter and vice versa, and I’m not sure if the difference in format between the two impacts on how enriching and ‘mutually beneficial’ they can or can’t be. But really this is all besides the point, because the best part of this whole thing is that I got to email Adam Ross personally. That, independently of the fact that I happened to be his Israeli publisher, he reached out to a reader of his and asked for a response.

It’s all very well to retweet an article about how to market e-books today (there are some great ones by the way), or how to best make use of NanoWriMo, but it’s not until today that I really felt I was reaping the rewards of an active Twitter account. Hence the terrible pun in the title and the awfully big smile on my face. Adam Ross, by the way, is lovely.

Telling It With Pictures: JLF 2012 (take II)

After last week’s attempt to try and postmortem the Jaipur Literature Festival through one-liner quotes from the talks I attended (and given my seemingly inexhaustible impulse to try and recount this experience satisfactorily), today I thought I would attempt to do it through pictures, hoping that if a picture is worth a thousand words I myself will have to supply comparatively fewer.

Day 1:

After a 7hr delay in Bombay airport consisting of sugary, machine-produced chai, a welcome reflexology foot massage and several, utterly futile attempts to connect to the Internet, we arrive in Jaipur, fall into bed and wake up to this newspaper half under the door. So far, the 250, 108 and 135 are all abstract numbers shrouded in charged anticipation.

Day 1 and Oprah's already making her presence felt. There's a signifying absence for Rushdie but still - 250 authors, 108 performers and 235 sessions!

As we arrive at the festival grounds (the beautiful Diggi Palace), we are greeted by security in khaki uniforms that bring the word ‘military’ much more readily to mind. They were to become our constant companions over the next 5 days, as the festival’s popularity also made it a focus of literay-political controversy or Ophrah-fuelled madness.

We were split off into gendered lines, herded through 2 metal detectors, swiped down by female security guards and had our bags checked, after finally being scanned in to the festival proper. I breathed a sigh of relief and un-sharpened my elbows. It didn’t look like any Israeli chutzpa would have worked here anyway…

My delegate pass, in the security-mad, crowd-filled festival ground - GOLD DUST. also known as my free lunch pass

The rather 'festive' festival entrance

The Front Lawns - the biggest of the four speaking venues at Diggi Palace

To herald the inaugural speeches - a bedecked bagpipe player...

...followed by his merry men

Sanjoy Roy - festival organizer - gives the opening speech, welcoming the first celeb of the day - Queen Mother of Bhutan

Queen Mum of Bhutan lights the ceremonial candle officially opening the festival, with Sanjoy Roy, William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, festival organizers

Speaking Location 2: The Mughal Tent, for the first official session - 'The Vision of the Gurus'. An intellectual and musical experience, since we were treated to a live, impromptu performance from Madan Gopal Singh (second from left)

David Remnick taking us through the Disappointment (or not) of Obama. An incredibly sharp and disarmingly diffident speaker, who took us through Obama's failed attempt to be post-racial, and our doomed expectations as to his saintliness. Apparently, no president has been inaugurated into quite the nightmare that Obama was, so, let's give the guy a break.

Third speaking location - Baithak Tent, with lounge chairs, low stools, and daybeds. (perfect for a hipstamatic shot)

Baithak Tent loungers.

'Writing Gender' session. Site of the most memorable sentence of the festival. Gay writer Hoshang Merchant's imperative to 'Dance naked! Do it now!'. He also told one member of the audience that they couldn't opine about gay issues unless they were gay. A controversial speaker to say the least.

'Writing the New Latin America' - a wonderful talk with the stunning Pola Oloixarac, who asserted that what she calls the 'playground of millions' - aka the Internet - also constitutes our 'greatest living novel'. If listeners weren't blinded by Oloixarac's good looks, or utterly charmed by her ready laughter, they might have missed her awesome erudition. She was dropping philosophers all over the place, quoting Heidegger verbatim (although who would have known if she was wrong...) and finally concluded that she was 'utterly in love with Nabokov'. When her interlocutor pointed out he was dead, she replied 'I find him absolutely charming, he's a charming cadaver.'

Our daily free lunch. Opportunity for hobnobbing with the literati / acquiring connoisseur-like acquaintance with buttery Indian biscuit bread or local missi rotis

Hobnobbing

A full Front Lawn, where sitting on the floor squished up next to the main speaker of the last session was no hardship whatsoever..."please Teju Cole, do squeeze down next to me..."

Durbar Hall: fourth speaking location and blessedly indoors so that the perennial crowding at least resulted in shared body heat

A vain attempt to try and photograph debut novelist Taiye Selasi and award-winning journalist Philip Gourevitch chatting before their session on 'The Weather In Africa'

Around halfway through Day 3, running from session to session to have my mind blown got a bit much, so like many others, I took some time out to chill on the grass

I think our security friends felt the same - and who could blame them after Oprah chaos and Rushdie-related near arrests?

Pint-sized Natacha Appanah had big opinions about being categorized as a 'Mauritian writer,' and refuses to bow to expectations that she should only be writing about island life and sandy beaches

Feisty Jamaica Kincaid, author of Annie John, would brook no stupid questions, and read from her iPad, afterwards reflecting that though she was always afraid of the sea while living on an island, now that she lives happily in a landlocked place all she does is write about water..

Natacha Appanah "I'm going to look so short next to you". Jamaica Kincaid "no don't worry, I'll crouch down"

festival participants ranged across all ages

Saturday night meant happy 25th Birthday to Penguin India, who threw a wonderful party just outside the gates of old Jaipur.

Celebrating 25 years of Penguin India - cloth-covered hanging balloons, fairy-lit tress, a jazz band and hanging Penguin classics

The Penguin Car. I took shameless amounts of pictures on, in, and by the side of this baby

Unwrapping goodie bag from Penguin party. Breathe sigh of relief that I didn't get round to buying these items myself at the Penguin merchandise shop, aka, the centre of temptation

Sunday dawned bright, clear and beautiful, a welcome relief after the first, chillier days of outdoor intellectual stimulation. It was also Oprah day, but, feeling quite superior and beyond such mass-hysteria, I decided I had no interest in hearing her (I am a hard-nosed, bespectacled book-lover after all, and am here to go all breathless and gaga-eyed over obscure writers, not international superstars) so I wouldn’t exert myself to try and get to the festival in time.

Error.

Feeling, once again, quite pleased with myself, I left in plenty of time to get to a midday meeting I had with Random House at the festival, only to be greeted by the sight of a line of people a kilometer long, all queuing to see the great lady. Now, apparently, was the time to be Israeli about things. Bypassing the line altogether, I jumped (or stepped daintily and invisibly) over a security barrier and joined another line, but this one at least closer to purple-faced and intimidating security personnel. This queue wasn’t so much a line as it was a scrum, and I was reminded of the bygone years when I used to try getting into clubs. Being prevented from entering the JLF because of Oprah was no less frustrating than being halted by a capricious bouncer.

Whilst holding off an amorphous crowd of desperate and indignant people (including one writer who waved his green speakers pass in the air to no effect and then started swearing loudly) can’t be fun, my sympathies for the soldiers/security guys ran low when we were all forcibly and physically pushed or shoved into a single-file line which then uncomfortably, shifted itself past the barrier. Feeling very radical and protester-like (and secretly enjoying the whole thing immensely), I gave myself up to the movement of the crowd (it was a little like how I imagine crowd-surfing must be) and succeeded in getting into the festival only to get a call from my Random House contact – minutes after I had got in they had closed the festival altogether, citing overcrowding. Ya think?

After all my protestations of disinterest, shortly after I ended up less than a meter away from Oprah, as her entourage, flanked by more security, cleared a path for her out of the festival. So, I got my celebrity moment after all (sort of), and once she had exited we could all breathe a sigh of relief and get back to business.

Day 4: Time to go off-piste, backstage, or behind-tent, to see a different side of the festival

For some, all the literature had done them in.

The Americans try and get people involved and win them over. Best answer to this question was: 'Salman Rushdie'

The Brits try equally hard, with slightly more success: British Council Reading Room - open air library with a cultural agenda

A god's-eye view of the festival

People taking advantage of the couches by the British Council Reading Room

After 5 days of Literature, Politics, Philosophy and unabashed idealism, everyone packed into buses and took themselves off for the welcome final party. After driving out of the centre of Jaipur, we arrived in a car park and were taken by horse and carriage to the party proper..

Historic Amber Fort: tourist destination and party spot for the literati

We were welcomed by elephants, dancing girls and bare chested men banging drums – no mean feat in the desert evening cool. I imagine that is why they were so enthusiastically drumming and shouting as we arrived. It’s one way to keep warm.

Sponsors Glenlivet provided quite the bar on one level, which eventually led into a dance-floor amidst water-gardens, whilst a buffet-dinner level hovered above all, affording me the opportunity to take this photo of (nearly) all of it.

Nevertheless, it was an iPhone camera, apps or no apps, and eventually a girl has to give up on being an observer and avail herself of the Glenlivet, crumbly Rajasthani butter (don't ask) and soak up the last few hours of literati-life...

Squeezing It All Into One Line: The Jaipur Literary Festival 2012

It is extremely tempting to try and summarize the wildly intense, brain-and-sensory overload that was the JLF 2012 in a series of one-liners, not least because there were quite a few memorable ones..

They ran from the imperative-
dance naked! do it now!‘ (Hoshang Merchant, Indian writer of Gay fiction)

to the critical-
[Obama’s] Nobel Prize was a prize for not being George Bush‘ (David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker)

to the philosophical-
Sikhism is not something of the hereafter, it is about living the right way in this world. A kind of detachment in attachment.‘ (Navtej Sarna, writer and diplomat)

to the historical-
Hitler and Stalin did not inherit absolute power the way that Peter the Great did, they rose to it – it’s not lunacy or moral imbecility, it’s great people skills.‘ (historian Simon Sebag Montefiore)

to the metaphorical-
turn your body into ink and your mind into paper, then turn your bones into a pen‘ (The Vision of the Gurus session)

to the scatological-
Purgatives are like purgatory, they almost make you believe‘ (Indian writer R. Raj Rao)

to meditations on journalism and power-
the job of journalism is to put pressure on power‘ (David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker)

on journalism and literature-
there is only so far journalism can go, and then literature takes over‘ (Jason Burke, journalist and writer)

or just on journalism-
Somebody won’t often be able to give you a soundbite about their lives immediately. But if you shut up and follow them and spend the time, that truth will emerge.‘ (Katherine Boo, journalist and writer)

and then on how the internet is affecting the aesthetics of literature-
the internet is our greatest living novel…it’s the playground of millions‘ (Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac)

on modern identity politics-
you’re not purely anything anymore‘ (novelist Teju Cole)

and on how to write that play or novel you have inside you-
Get rid of the delusion that you’ll somehow do it by not doing it. Taking a walk or sitting by the pool isn’t going to magic a play into existence.‘ (Tom Stoppard, playwright)

and finally, perhaps a snippet or two of Bakhti poetry

God, My Darling,
Do me a favour
And kill my mother-in-law

and

Void is not devoid of God

But of course, as the long list of quotes shows, not only have I failed to catch the festival in one line, I have failed to catch it in a few. And that really was what pushed this festival over the edge of being an experience you can process, postmortem, regurgitate and file away neatly, to being an experience that leaves an indelible mark and changes the scale of the way of you think.

It seems inevitable that the JLF will continue to grow, and I often heard it bandied about during the festival that next year, the organizers would have to shift to a larger venue, so I feel privileged to have been able to attend the festival while it was still (just about) Diggi-Palace-size. But I’m certain that however it grows, and whatever corporate sponsors and celebrity guests it succeeds in attracting, the next Jaipur Literature Festivals will still be about a ‘curiosity about the internal life of words, and about the creative imaginations that give birth to them.’ (Namita Gokhale, novelist and festival organizer)

What’s more, and even better, the JLF, with its huge and uniformly enthusiastic number of attendees, its international participants and its cosmopolitan atmosphere, did and does ‘testify in an uncomplicated way to the power of literature and what it can do.’ (Teju Cole, novelist)

Above and below the hobnobbing and professional networking, and certainly beyond the persistent political controversy, the festival seems ultimately to be about interested, engaged and switched-on people coming together, ready to encounter the other through the written and the spoken word.

(For videos of the sessions, pictures and more info, go to http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/)