‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver

Consider a scab. Picture the raw pink steak-ish part beneath it. Now go down another couple of layers. This is where Lionel Shriver went to write the super-gripping, super honest novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.

This is set in the aftermath of a teen massacre. Eva Khatchadourian is an entrepreneur, a world-ophile, deeply in love with her husband Franklin, independently wealthy, and the mother of a Kevin Khatchadourian, the barely-not legal who took out seven of his classmates in a well-executed execution.

He’s locked up. She’s still running into parents of victims at the grocery store and trying to stay steady when she tells people her infamous last name. A couple times a week she pens a letter to Franklin, with whom she is estranged, and the story unfolds in these journal-style waxing. She rehashes their past and admits to the daily struggles: The time some anonymous faces soiled her porch with dark red paint; The woman who smashed every egg in the carton Eva had left in her unattended grocery cart. Visiting their snarky asshole of a son in kiddie prison.

Eva is hardly a candidate for a STFU Parents post. She’s a reluctant incubator who agrees to drink the baby batter with the idea of collecting another person to love. To mixing life up from its predictable forward trajectory. To re-celebrate things like first words and first steps. But before he is even born, and especially after he’s born, she resents this change in lifestyle and this silent dullard who seemingly likes nothing.

By the time Kevin is school-aged, he has revealed a host of anti-social behaviors: Chucking rocks off bridges at passing cars, convincing a classmate with eczema to itch herself into a collection of blood flecks, fiddling with a neighbor’s bike and causing an accident.

Where Eva sees pure evil, Franklin is pantomiming an episode of “Happy Days”: Sports, staged battle re-enactments, a hardy boys-will-be-boys chuckle. This, obviously, is making things a little stressy on the home front.

And just when it looks like Franklin is obviously the biggest freakin’ idiot in the world to not notice that young Kevin is a sociopath, Shriver does a wordy strip tease and slowly reveals Eva as a bit of a pretentious dick. This leads the reader to a nugget of doubt:

Maybe Eva is a little loco and things aren’t as bad as she thinks.

At the same time, post-killing Eva is a metaphorical cutter, whose guilt over what has happened and how much of the burden of blame falls on her is what drives her to continue visiting Kevin and continue living in a place where she can’t dissolve into anonymity.

Genius much, Shriver?

This story is unique in both its complicated dueling leads — Eva and Kevin — and its not-so rosy portrayal of motherhood. There is a depth of honesty to Eva’s pattern of thought regarding to breed or not to breed. Franklin’s foray into the land of make believe was harder to swallow. The gruesome part of the plot seemed less sharp than all that proceeded it, but the development of the characters was the best kind of wrenching gut punch.

‘White Noise’ by Don Delillo

People who want to talk about Don Delillo’s postmodern contemporary classic novel White Noise probably want to talk about consumerism. They probably want to talk about death — the slow, abstract, repressed idea of it versus the hyper-aware fear of it.

More often than not, I miss the forest for the trees. When I talk about Don Delillo’s White Noise, I want to talk about hilarious dialogue, a scene involving a near-miss plane crash, and a pop culture curious professor Murray Jay Siskind, who has a concentration in Elvis and wins the award for supporting character.

I want to talk about how some writers have this ability to riff with words in a way that just seems willy nilly but probably is not. They can toss down paragraph after paragraph of such cleverness that if you listen closely, you can practically hear Delillo cackling through the clacking on his keyboard. It is this gust of creative freedom, fresh air and wintergreen breath, that looks like a tampon commercial: Hair bouncing and blowing during an exhilarating horseback ride, a game of touch football on a fall day, wearing white pants and still being able to dance all night at the discotheque. That is the way Delillo writes.

Jack Gladney is a professor who has invented a program called Hitler Studies at the Midwest university where he teaches and takes long walks in his professorial cloak and dark sunglasses. He is on his fifth marriage, this time to Babette, who seems like a human hot dish, all warm and comforting-like. They live with a blend of kids from various other entanglements: A teen-aged son, seemingly a budding philosophy major; A pre-teen daughter who reads medical reference books for sport; another daughter who enjoys burnt toast, and a creepy young son who brings a level of pleasure to Jack and Babette’s life that both deem undefinable.

This is a Plot-Lite story, a novel that favors incidents over progression and growth and tangible conflict. The main moment happens in a middle section of the book, when  an “airborne toxic event” sends the townspeople scurrying for safety from it’s ominous ramifications. Life resumes after that, though, although Jack has been tainted by exposure to the cloud and Babette is acting strangely, staring out windows, her over-worn sweat suit gaining its own muscle memory.

The aforementioned Murray Jay Siskall is Jack’s colleague who is constantly studying society and conducting man-on-the-street interviews. He provides a conversational backboard for Jack to lob ideas off of, Murray returning with quips and questions and pushing conversations in unusual directions.

“Your wife’s hair is a living wonder,” Murray said.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“She has important hair.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
“I hope you appreciate that woman.”
“Absolutely.”
“Because a woman like that doesn’t just happen.”
“I know it.”
“She must be good with children. More than that, I’ll bet she’s great to have around in a family tragedy. She’d be the type to take control, show strength and affirmation.”

In a scene that feels like something starring Leslie Nielson, Jack is at the airport waiting for another daughter to arrive. He witnesses a slew of woozy passengers filing off a plane. A man tells a story of how there was almost a crash. How three of the four engines failed and they plunged out of the sky.

A flight attendant pinned to the bulkhead reading a disaster manual.
The pilot screams “We’re a silver gleaming death machine!”
Passengers crawl into the fetal position.
Another pilot tells the story into the black box, ending it with “I love you, Lance.”

This might be my favorite scene out of any book ever. It has that same zippy flavor found in conversations with Murray and it’s pure hilarity. Delillo does this sort of thing well. Admittedly, his humor doesn’t come with different dialects, so plenty of the characters sound like other character’s own inner monologue. But for the most part, this book is a pleasure to read.

‘A Widow’s Story’ by Joyce Carol Oates

I think I handled the grieving process better when John Dunne died than when Raymond Smith did.

Something about Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir A Widow’s Story, chronicling the aftermath of her forever husband’s sudden death, had me weeping before appointments, at Subway, and especially in bed. I don’t remember Joan Didion’s version, which proceeded this one by about five years and included a sick daughter, making me feel like someone broke my heart in half and dropped the pieces into a garbage disposal.

The world’s most prolific writer*, a woman who seemingly emits better-than-decent novels like they are mere finger belches, spent almost a year in silence unable to make enough words or the right words to cure the ache of losing her life partner. But when she finally does get down to the business of recording this place in time, she does it with sentences that are fits and bursts. Little poetic blurts, sentences riddled with long dashes that seem perfectly in line with the brain broken in sorrow.

Oates opens her memoir with a time both she and her husband should have died. A year earlier they had been in an accident that triggered the car’s airbags and left them bruised — but giddy with how alive they still were. Then when it wasn’t expected months and months and months later, Ray developed pneumonia, was hospitalized, and got a fatal infection in the hospital. Oates received the terrible phone call — he was still alive, though — rushed to the hospital, but got there too late. She imagines the way he died surrounded by strangers late at night. The paragraphs where she collects his things, his glasses, his papers is one massive soul suck.

From there things get a little repetitious. The minutia and the legalities involved with having a dead spouse, the inability to sleep paired with the unwillingness to take sleeping pills, the avoidance of certain rooms in the house they shared. Ghost images. The fear of learning something about her husband that will change the way he is remembered.

Friends invite her to dinner. She exchanges emails with Richard Ford and Edmund White. She considers her cache of drugs and imagines how easy it would be to kill herself and then later, how much she doesn’t want to do that.

There are some really magical scenes where she brings Raymond back to life by virtue of talking about their past. They met in a lecture hall. They spent a wretched year in Texas, which was worse than the years in Detroit. Raymond loved his garden. And the weirdest fact from the book: Raymond didn’t read her fiction.

JCO marries again less than a year after Raymond’s death. The romance isn’t featured in these pages, but husband No. 2 gets the briefest of brief mentions in the final page of the book. After 400 plus pages, it doesn’t do much to bandage the ache of the previous pages, but it is a little bit of cheer.

*This has not been proven by science.

‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

I’ve always been super attracted to the Ex-Pats, boozing their blurry-eyed way through Paris in the 1920s. Falling into gutters and falling into beds. Being so so serious about this art thing and passing the salt and pepper to Gertrude Stein.

While listening to, yes listening to, Paula McLain’s bit of historical fiction The Paris Wife, I had a thought that I’ve never had in a decade and a half of consuming Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the like. It went like this: Why, these people are idiot ego-maniac twenty-somethings with no pause button on the old immediate gratification trigger.

This understanding doesn’t make this story, told mostly from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest’s first wife, any less delicious. I mean, I lap up a modern version of this bad behavior every week on “Jersey Shore.”

The story covers the Hadley-Ernest combo meal from first glances to the final phone call long after they have divorced. In between there is travel, a baby, and Hemingway’s first bursts of literary fame including the writing of The Sun Also Rises, which was taken right from the couple’s travels, although curiously omits any mention of Hadley, real or disguised. You get front row seats for the integration of the other woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, who worked her way into their daily life well into the affair, riding bikes with Hadley — who knew the score — and nooners with Ernest. She becomes his second of four wives.

It’s the stuff of A Moveable Feast, but from the sideline camera of a woman who is “just the wife.”

My goodness McLain does this well. She has captured the voices and brain waves of these characters in such a convincing way it was easy to forget the “fiction” label. The shifts in perspective to consider Hemingway’s struggles are a nice contrast. They are the ideas of a romantic who just can’t help himself. He’s torn between the woman he believes is his other half, and this sassy minx in smart coats who works in fashion.

Meanwhile, the scenes including F. Scott and Zelda are like all-star comedy disaster cameos. I missed this story when it was gone.

‘Blood, Bones and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton’s food memoir Blood, Bones & Butter is a bit of a sleeper. It starts with pleasant and wholesome childhood memories in a big old house on plenty of acreage, parked under mother’s chin listening to her talk, watching her prepare huge feasts.

Then Whammo! It’s girls gone wild. Age deception, booze, drugs, alternative schooling, jetting off to New York City to live with her sister and steal dinero from the bar where she works. Wandering down the East Coast to hone hippie sensibilities, still keeping a toe in the food industry. Off to Michigan to study writing among peers she doesn’t really connect with and cater events among co-workers with whom she does.

There is a definite wait-what? moment.

This memoir is pretty uneven. The writing, specifically the moments when she is really talking food, is not only super visual, but almost taste-able. But some of the life story is a little dry documentary. Some of the best parts are set in Italy, but it goes on too long and is repetitive.

There are some wicked scenes in this book, including a lobster massacre at a summer camp so inexcusable — picture the poor little creatures unable to breathe, crawling up each others backs to escape — that Hamilton fled the premises leaving a bucket of KFC as a token of her discontent. Baby’s first chicken kill-pluck-cook, however, is the beautiful flavor of gore.

When one decides to write a memoir, she can include, smudge, or ignore any facet of her life. In the case of this one, the smudged and ignored parts are a bit distracting. Our hero paints her mother, first, as this wonderfully exotic and worldly woman who spent hours in the kitchen and tag-teamed with her husband a massive lamb feast every summer. Then her parents split up. Later in the story she is on her way to meet her mother for the first time in 20 years. There is a vague resolution at the end of the trip. But without even a bit of an idea of why they were estranged, it lacks impact.

Also: At one point Hamilton enters into a long term relationship with a woman she meets while getting her MFA in Michigan. Hamilton cheats on her with Michele, the Italian green card-needer she eventually marries and makes puppies with. Their actual relationship is unclear — they do it, they don’t live together, they travel to Italy together every year, they don’t communicate, she seems to like the idea of this family thing. Not really the stuff of pop ballads.

During one of the best parts of the story, Hamilton is opening her restaurant Prune in the morning and there is an overwhelming smell of human feces, which is coming from outside the back door. Later she looks out and sees a dead rat — newly dead and even still breathing, she thinks — until it falls down a step and busts open revealing a slew of maggots.

The person who wrote this scene is probably the same kind of person who knows there are huge omissions in her story, shrugged, and said “Eff ‘em.” Which is also kind of awesome.

‘The Chronology of Water’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Sitting on my couch. Listening to noninvasive, lyric-less music with headphones. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water. I stop. Check the time. Two hours have passed since I last came up for air. Whoa. She just drugged me. Plopped me in front of a psychedelic screen saver and had her way with my brain when I wasn’t looking.

My friend sent me an email first telling me that she’d had a dream that she told me we don’t like the same books. We don’t in real life, this is true, she acknowledged in the letter. Except Haruki Murakami. Still, she tells me, read this book. But first she tells me that it starts with a dead baby and then segues into incest, heavy drug use and sex.

It does start with a dead baby. It does have heavy drug use. There is, indeed, sex. And there is this unconventional sentence structure, poetic snippets, soul-squeezing scenes that left me dizzy. This is not my style of reading at all. Prosey-prose, heavy with metaphor. The kind of writing that sounds like it should be read aloud to a room full of people who will later deconstruct it like they are putting puzzle pieces back into a box. In the hands of a lesser writer, which is to say almost any other writer, this would be too written-y and self-conscious. But damn Yuknavitch has a way with words. She knows how to write a word like “bloodsong” and not have it sound like a workshop cliche.

Consider the chapter at about dead center where she writes the story of falling in love with the man who becomes her second husband. It is about five pages heavy on activity and light on periods that reads like fast-forwarding through video footage of a relationship from beers and bars and bikes to the part where he meets someone else and Lidia loses a bunch of grief weight and everyone tells her how pretty she looks. It is pitch perfect.

It starts:

“Year one we drink Guinness mostly all the time and we ride Mountain bikes around Eugene at night and we go to the Vet’s Club we go to the Vet’s Club we go to the Vet’s club we go to the High Street Cafe hey I’ll give you my student load wad of $700 if you kiss the guy who joined us for a drink he does we laugh we drink we fuck.”

She is a swimmer, from birth, probably until death. And everything in her life comes back to water. She trades her strong back and wicked stroke for full ride scholarship to get out of Florida and away from her sexually abusive father and her alcoholic, limping mother. She goes wild in Lubbock, Texas. Falls in love with a James Taylor-sort. Marries him even. But they are separated when she leaves for Oregon to live with her sister, bulging with baby, and he follows her and moves into a place across town. The baby is born dead. Her ashes are spilled into water.

So this book is really something. The scenes painted in a fantastic way and the stories are edited to a sexy, sometimes shocking, truth: Lidia, drunk, sitting on a statue of Buddy Holly. Getting into a fight with her boyfriend. Screaming at him as he drunk drives them home, passing out before they get there. She opens the car door and runs off into the night; Lidia and her best friend picked up by a boyish-looking classmate, a woman who whisks them away for a free love weekend at a hotel; Lidia having a manic laughing fit, waist-deep in water, while trying to get rid of the ashes of the daughter that was stillborn.

This book made me want to go swimming. Me. A non-swimmer. A person who hates to get her face wet. She made me want to jump into the deep end, feet first and sit on the floor of a pool, watching people float over me. She’s that good.

I will concede that I can only read sentences referencing how wet underwear/panties/the seat became after this or that happened without tiring of it. She uses it literally, she uses it metaphorically. It loses its energy. And every once in awhile Yuknavitch turns to face her audience and address the reader, which is distracting. Other than that, big ups.