Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

We Need To Talk About Kevin.

For three years, Steve and I have gone to psychiatrist after psychologist, parenting class after special ed class, occupational therapy after social therapy. Short of medication, which is looming in the horizon, I think we have tried everything there is to try in order to answer the question of what to do with Alex. Therapeutic CDs, gross motor skill work, joint compression, the hug machine, and of course, lots and lots of frustration and self-blame on our part.

"What to Do With Alex" has been such a central theme in our lives that I feel non-plussed when people engage in what seems to be an increasingly popular hobby of verbally stoning the mother of the Bad Boy. I wonder how people could be so stupid - do they actually think we don't notice that Something's Wrong with a child that is unable to follow the simplest of directions or that Something's Wrong when an almost six-year-old has not learned to engage in the most primitive forms of social interactions, shrieking Okay Spongebob, I just want to get through this evening with my social status intact!!!! three centimeters from another child's face instead of respecting personal space and saying, My name is Alex. Do you want to play?

Do they really think we haven't told him what to say, by this point, thousands of times?

We swirl down the vortex of the whirlpool on bad days, watching Good Mothers with their Perfect Children standing on the water's edge, tsking, She should have breastfed longer/She never spanked him/She didn't get him potty trained early enough/she worked out of the home/What did she expect?

It can be lonely, is what I'm getting at, being the mother of a "What's Wrong with That Kid" kid, and, assuming you have a partner, an unfortunate side effect that nobody talks about is that sometimes, when you're tired of blaming yourself, you start in on the only other person that's in it with you. Because on bad days, you realize that you're always tired, you're always stressed, everybody hates your kid and blames you, sometimes even your own parents, and you can do nothing but watch your money, your career, your youth, and every treasured possession you ever loved get broken, and I'm here to tell you, it's very difficult to pile all that onto the spine of a marriage without giving it scoliosis at a minimum.

But that's a bad day. A good day is what keeps you going, what makes you think it's going to work out, that maybe we'll all pull through.

But it's with the knowledge that we're not finished with the bad days just yet that made Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin a horror story.

I didn't recognize it as a horror story at first, being so accustomed to the genre being defined by Stephen "Aliens-Are-Bursting-Out-My-Butt" King, but it's as classic a horror story as any I've ever read. It's Frankenstein, in fact, almost exactly - a brilliant mind dabbling in a little genetic experiment, only to have it go completely awry in horrifying and totally unanticipated ways.

Shriver has an unerring ability to see into the mind of a particular kind of woman - the kind of woman who fears, no matter on how small a scale, that motherhood might take her identity away. The woman who was ambivalent about motherhood to begin with and hoped it was something she could grow into. A woman who can relate wholeheartedly to the narrator of this tale:

A few weeks ago, I attended a thing. I don't want to say what it was, because for all I know, some of you were there. Suffice it to say, it involved a room full of very pregnant women whose husbands were tenderly rubbing their enormous bellies - and me, sitting alone, because my husband had insisted that "no men are going to be at that thing."

First, everyone went around the room and introduced themselves. And you can probably imagine my amazement when the women began introducing themselves in reference to their unborn children.

Well, actually, no. No, you probably can't imagine my amazement as women who had already named their children introduced themselves as "Sierra's mommy," and women who hadn't named their children (but who knew the gender of their children) introduced themselves as "mommy to this precious baby boy," and the rest of the women introduced themselves as "mommy-to-be on [due date]" - all without ever revealing their own first names.

Sitting in the corner, I felt like Admiral James Stockdale at a mother's playgroup: "Who am I? What am I doing here?"

Later, we went around the room again, and announced "one precious promise" that we intended to make to our unborn child, "one precious promise" that we would always keep. "I promise to always honor your needs, but not necessarily your wants." "I promise to always love you unconditionally." That sort of thing.

When it was my turn, I cheerfully offered, "I promise to always introduce myself by my own first name."

No one laughed.

Personally, I thought it was hilarious.

Eva Khatchadourian would have thought it was hilarious, too. Creator of a series of wildly successful travel books, Khatchadourian decides, after much thought, to take the plunge into motherhood, a "new country to explore." From the moment of her child's birth, a birth where she "felt nothing" and tried to fill the empty space in her emotional repetoire with motherhood movie clich├ęs, she felt rejected by Kevin, her newborn son. Detailing the years of their lives together after that with unapolegetic honesty, Khatchadourian builds the tension of living with a child that made her nervous and hostile in turns. Forced to quit her successful career because no sitter would keep Kevin longer than a week, and a husband who seems more involved in seeing a "healthy, happy son" rather than the eerie reality and blames her poor mothering skills when she tries to confide in him, the reader gets sucked down the whirlpool with her, and when she drowns, we drown.

The story opens with Khatchadourian writing letters to her estranged husband Franklin, a year after Kevin goes on a shooting rampage at his high school, killing 9 students. In the letters that follow, one after another, Khatchadourian combs over their lives together, searching for a key that will tell her both What's Wrong With Kevin and What She Did Wrong.

The separate line for my study wasn't installed yet, so I left to grab the phone in the kitchen. It was Louis, with another crisis regarding [my job], whose resolution took a fair amount of time. I did call Kevin to come out where I could see, him, more than once. But I still had a business to oversee, and have you any notion how fatiguing it is to keep an eye on a small child every single moment of every single day? I'm tremendously sympathetic with the sort of diligent mother who turns her back for an eye blink - who leaves a child in the bath to answer the door and sign for a package, to scurry back only to discover that her little girl has hit her head on the faucet and drowned in two inches of water.Two inches. Does anyone ever give the woman credit for the twenty-four-hours-minus-three-minutes a day that she has watched that child like a hawk? For the months, the years' worth of don't-put-that-in-your-mouth-sweeties, of whoops!-we-almost-fell-downs? Oh, no. We prosecute these people, we call it "criminal parental negligence" and drag them to court through the snot and salty tears of their own grief. Because only the three minutes count, those three miserable minutes that were just enough.

I finally got off the phone. Down the hall, Kevin had discovered the pleasures of a room with a door: The study's was shut. "Hey, kid," I called, turning the knob, "when you're this quiet you make me nervous-"

My wallpaper was spidery with red and black ink. The more absorbent papers had started to blotch. The ceiling, too, since I'd papered that as well; craning on the ladder had been murder on my back. Drops from overhead were staining one of my uncles' most valuable Armenian carpets, our wedding present. The room was so whipped and wet that it looked as if a fire alarm had gone off and triggered a sprinkling system, only the nozzles had flung not water but motor oil, cherry Hawaiian punch, and mulberry sorbet.

From the transitional squirts of a sickly purple I might later conclude that he had used up the bottle of black India ink first before moving on to the crimson, but Kevin left nothing to my deduction: He was still draining the last of the red ink in to the barrel of his squirt gun. Just as he'd posed in the process of retrieving the gun from the top of our kitchen cabinet, he seemed to have saved this last tablespoon for my arrival. He was standing on my study chair, bent in concentration; he did not even look up. The filling hole was small, and though he was pouring intently, my burnished oak desk was awash in spatter. His hands were drenched.

"Now," he announced quietly, "it's

I snatched the gun, flung it on the floor, and stamped it to bits. I was wearing pretty yellow Italian pumps. The ink ruined my shoes.

Alex did that once. With poo. I even wrote about it humorously, although it wasn't even close to funny at the time. But Shriver manages to make it horrific with no sense of future humorous retreat, while keeping that "we've all been there" ring of truth. Frankenstein's monster becomes alive by leaving open the idea that four-year-old Kevin's experiment with ink was deliberately hurtful. And the hurtful incidents continue, and begin to build in severity. Never does he relent, never does he show love, respect, or appreciation to Khatchadourian; never does he miss an opportunity to "show her she is not useful or wanted." True to a great horror novel, Shriver takes you right up to the door of a parent's darkest fear, and, over your growing protestations, pushes you right through.

And as in Frankenstein, We Need to Talk About Kevin has an underlying tragic pathos: Khatchadourian is convinced that she is an utter failure as a mother, that she has done nothing right, even as she gives up everything she ever loved, and all of her time and energy and focus trying to crack the impenetrable shell of a hostile, sullen, sociopathic child. Even past the shocking conclusion, Khatchadourian continues to believe in her ineptitude as she continues to do what all of us do - make plans to keep trying until our last breath, to care for our children for better or for worse, until death do us part.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the winner of 2005's Orange Prize for fiction.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Zen Shorts.

Oooh-we! Didn't I feel clever buying Alex a book that introduces him to Eastern religious philosophy? Jon J Muth's Zen Shorts makes you feel clever, too, the way it wraps up three little Zen Buddhist nuggets of wisdom inside a simple little tale of three polite, well-behaved children visiting an amiable, mellow panda bear (why didn't the children go as a group to visit their new neighbor, Stillwater Bear? I have no idea.)

Still, the illustrations are beautiful, the cover art in particular, as you can see, and the lessons taught by Stillwater are inked with a flatter, more two-dimensional feel than the children and the bear. As with all well-illustrated children's books, the pictures tell their own entertaining tales not mentioned in the dialogue. For example when Addy goes to visit Stillwater, she brings along a piece of cake with a stick of bamboo atop it. Later, after they are shown painting black ink illustrations of each other, they share the cake; Addy with a forkful of frosting, Stillwater delicately licking the bamboo.

And the simple lessons imparted by Stillwater - value people over possessions, don't hold grudges, with good comes bad and vice versa - they are easily grasped (if not easily followed) by small children. The character of Stillwater is based on Zen artist/teacher Sengai Bibbon (1750-1838), who taught sometimes unorthodox lessons through humor and his drawings.

The narrative is told with a quiet, gentle wit that doesn't patronize:

"I'm sorry for arriving unannounced," said the bear. "The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance." He spoke with a slight panda accent.

While Zen is a teaching tool used to clear and calm the mind, I can't say Alex took the lessons to heart. While he enjoyed Zen Shorts very much, he mostly grooved on the fact that Stillwater was wearing what seemed to be boxer shorts on the cover. But I will not let his lack of wisdom bother me, no. Rather, my unagitated mind will be a pond unbroken by ripples of discontent. Cool, placid, tranquil. So very zen.

Zen Shorts is appropriate for ages 4-7.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Cloud Atlas

I read the first few pages of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas while I was sitting in the Theatre Building on Belmont, helping my friend Elle out with the box office for the evening's show. It was a leisurely paced 19th century diary of a morally upright San Franciscan, Adam Ewing, who was travelling in the South Pacific. His first entry recorded a meeting with a British doctor, frantically digging for cannibal's teeth in the dirt. He was going to form a set of dentures when he had unearthed enough of them, he said, and give them to his greatest enemy, Marchiness Grace of Mayfair.

"Next Yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her Ambassadors' Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & delare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals' gnashers!"

Gently, carefully throughout the next 42 pages, Mitchell cradles absurd happening after absurd happening in such soft, laconic language that you must strain to see the picture he creates, as if looking through a spyglass. The effort is entirely worth it, because once the image of a slightly mad British doctor trying to ruin a woman at a dinner party by exposing her as one whose teeth, if not she herself, have tasted the Soylent Green, well, it's in there for good.

I was just getting my sea legs in this quiet tale when it ends mid-sentence on page 42, replaced by a completely different story of disgraced musician Robert Forbisher, writing letters in 1931 to the man who loves him, which also ends abruptly and is replaced by plucky feminist cub reporter Luisa Rey, in a Big Blockbuster Thriller about her adventures going up against the local nuclear plant. And on and on these stories unfold, each going further into the future, each told as if someone else had written them entirely, very much like, as Michael Chabon said, "a novel as series of nesting dolls." Each story is loosely entwined with each other, showing how people's histories pass gently by one another, like clouds, shifting and shaping each other, ever changing but still clouds, always.

The last story, taking place on the Big Island of Hawaii after the decline of civilization, continues uninterrupted, and after that each story picks up where it left off, including the tale of Adam Ewing, the end of the sentence realized at last.

Mitchell has a striking ability to adopt completely different voices in completely different genres, making the book zip by in some places (like the easy Rita Mae Brown/Sneaky Pie Brown-esque Luisa Rey as well as the futuristic, corporate controlled future of the Korean Clone Sonmi-451) and walk more slowly in others, like the Journal of Adam Ewing.

Mitchell's masterpiece within a novel that is almost uniformly brilliant is "Letters from Zedelghem," the tale of the scurrilous Robert Forbisher. Disowned by his family, completely broke, unemployed, and given one last chance to succeed, Mitchell paints such a pure picture of a man who on the surface is satisfied with his amoral character, delighting in shocking the bourgeoise, content in his self-centeredness, that I was surprised to find myself getting sucked so strongly into the tragedy that his life had become, and by the end of the story he had managed to make me hope as desperately as Forbisher himself that everything would work out for him.

Also amazing is Mitchell's attention to detail, especially in "An Orison of Sonmi-451," where he takes policies in today's administration and draws aspects of them out to an extreme conclusion. (My favorite was the word "democrat" had become a swear word interchangeable with "fuck").

I have about 10 pages left to go in the book, and I'm hoping it doesn't become utterly lame right at the end, like Philip Roth's Plot Against America (quick book review of P.A.A: first 3/4s of the novel: Best. Book. Ever. Last 1/4th of the novel: Oh, my God. When did I start the reading Reader's Digest condensed version of this book?)

I don't think that's going to happen with this one, though, so I feel pretty safe in concluding that Cloud Atlas made me very happy to be a reader.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Kitten's First Full Moon

A lot of literary-minded people believe that celebrities need to knock it off with all the children's book publishing they're doing. It's not as easy as it looks, they say. Children's books are a lot like poetry - the sparing use of words necessitates each one being carefully chosen, and most celebrities don't have the discipline to make it work. For every Jamie Lee Curtis, there's at least three that need to just cut it right out, they say.

Nobody else really has an opinion about this. A book is something you use to lull your kids to sleep at night, and since most of them are paper versions of what they saw on Disney anyway, what difference does it make?

Once you've been introduced to the likes of an author like Kevin Henkes, however, you'll see what the difference is. Henkes, author of Christopher's new book Kitten's First Full Moon, has been quietly turning out charming, sweet-natured, clever children's books for years (among them the superb Owen's Fuzzy Yellow Blanket and Wemberly Worried) and all without donning a single conical shaped bra.

Winner of 2004's Caldecott Medal, Kitten's First Full Moon tells the story of a kitten who thinks the full moon in the sky is a saucer of milk, and tries everything she can think of to reach it, with disasterous yet comical results.

The black-and-white illustrations capture perfectly the sense of quiet nighttime, and bears a strong resemblence to the thickly-outlined drawings in the first Caldecott winner, Herbert the Lion.

Of course, the true critic is Christopher himself, who was inspired by the kitten's quest to shout, "I want milk toooo! I want milk tooooooo!!!!"

Which I suppose either means the book is good, or is sending subliminal messages from the USDA.

Kitten's First Full Moon is appropriate for ages 2-5.

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