WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN: A BOOK REVIEW

May 30, 2014 in Book Reviews

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is an epistolary novel, told entirely in letters from Eva to her husband Franklin. Through her letters, Eva goes back in time to reconstruct the chain of events that led her away from the life she loved, filled with travel to exotic lands and flying home into the arms of Franklin, the love of her life, with whom she built a family, to the place where she is now: living alone with her son Kevin in jail for the massacre of nine people at his high school.

Initially, I struggled to get into this novel. Eva is brutally honest in her letters, laying all her faults out on the table, but she is not a likeable character. She is intolerant of Americans (she is originally from Armenia) and her opinions of the obese and the pretentious and on many other subjects are hard to digest.

Eva is happy to be gone for months, traveling from country to country for her work, but Franklin wants her to be home more so they can start a family. The first fissure in their relationship begins as she resents giving up her life for a child, and when Kevin is born, the problem is further compounded by her complete disinterest in her son. She feels nothing of the maternal bond that she was promised, and because Kevin is a difficult infant and toddler, Eva can never get enough purchase to develop a love for her own son.

For me, the birth of Kevin is when this novel reached out, stuck its hooks in me, and never let go. The interpersonal dynamics are complex and thoroughly explored in all their beautiful and ugly details. Franklin, stymied by Eva’s lack of interest in her son, becomes Kevin’s biggest cheerleader, refusing to believe Eva’s tales of the monster Kevin is becoming. Eva is at her wit’s end tending to a son who is manipulative and calculating, his every behavior designed to challenge the patience of his mother. She finally loses her temper and flings Kevin against a wall, breaking his arm. As she faces her son in horror of what she’s done, she is rewarded with a smile from Kevin: her first. Later, he remarks that that was the only honest thing she had ever done.

Eva examines her own role in what Kevin becomes with unflinching honesty. As Kevin grows older, Eva and Franklin grow further apart. She sees who Kevin is, and Franklin sees who he wants Kevin to be, and they are both stuck in their roles, unable to move forward and unable to get help for Kevin because Franklin is adamant that Eva is the one with the problem.

Even the birth of their daughter Celia does little to bring them closer together, and it pushes Kevin further away. Celia dotes on Kevin, even though he treats her with derision, but her devotedness takes a hit when an accident occurs at home under Kevin’s watch, rendering Celia blind in one eye. Franklin blames Eva, but Eva knows Kevin is the one responsible. His anti-social and violent acts escalate chillingly until his final, meticulously planned act, just before Kevin’s 16th birthday: the shooting rampage he orchestrated in his high school gym.

Read this book with a dictionary nearby, for Shriver has a strong command of the English language and she is not afraid to use it. Her language, although studded with words I’ve never come across before, is lyrical and beautiful to read, even when the content itself is disturbing.

This novel was riveting. It was heartbreaking in places and eerie in others, and in the end, I finally got to a place where I understood Eva. As a mother who lives and breathes her sons, it was hard for me to find common ground with this character who seemed to have no connection whatsoever with her son. And yet, she was the one who stayed home with him as an infant and toddler while Franklin kept his job. Eva suffered through every one of Kevin’s manipulative and damaging acts, and she was the one who, from the beginning, saw Kevin as he really was, and Kevin knew it. In the end, it is Eva who visits Kevin in prison on a regular basis, never leaving him behind no matter how heinous his crimes were, and it is Eva who maintains a bedroom in her home for him to come live with her when he gets out. She may have gotten off to a rocky start, but in the end, Eva is someone I understand: she’s a mother.

Some of the Words I Learned (and may try to incorporate in future blogs!):

Excoriate: to criticize something or someone harshly.

Fricative: a sound made by forcing air out of your mouth through a narrow opening that is made using the lips, teeth, or tongue.

Hale: strong and healthy, especially of an older male.

Sisal: a strong white fiber made from a tropical plant.

Aphorism: a short phrase that expresses a true or wise idea.

GODZILLA!

May 27, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting, Reflections on Pop Culture

On Friday night my boys and I went to see Godzilla in 3D. With a six-year gap between my oldest and youngest sons, it’s never easy for us to agree on what movie to see. My soon-to-be 14-year-old wants to see movies like Neighbors and A Million Ways to Die in the West, which are hardly appropriate for him, let alone my eight-year-old. My middle son wants to see whatever movie is either a) wildly inappropriate for his 11-year-old age or b) that is different from the one everyone else wants to see. Then there is my eight-year-old, who would rather watch movies at home on TV, no matter how many times I explain to him that you can’t see new releases on TV. So for us, the fact that Godzilla exists is a minor miracle.

However, our movie viewing did not get off to a great start. The trailers, usually my favorite part of seeing a movie in the theater, were atrocious. Honestly, this was Godzilla! Who did they think would be coming to see this movie? It’s geared toward adolescent boys and men who used to be adolescent boys. Didn’t they realize there would be a ton of kids flocking to see it? So why include a trailer for a movie like Deliver Us From Evil? It is the story of a New York police officer investigating something creepy and disturbing in the zoo at night. The scene is dark and eerie, the faces of the actors are perplexed and nervous, and the score ratchets up to a screeching crescendo when a flashlight falls on an old woman with long, straggly gray hair digging feverishly in the dirt for—well, I don’t know what she was digging for because that’s the moment I grabbed my youngest boy, pushed his head into my sweatshirt, and covered his eyes and ears. This was a horror film in the vein of The Exorcism, and there was no way an eight-year-old should see even a trailer for that kind of movie. (My middle son, however, turned to me and said he wanted to see it when it came out. Not in a million years, small child.)

Next up was the trailer for Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson as a woman who gradually gains the ability to utilize more of her brain’s capacity. It’s an interesting concept, but unfortunately the trailer began with some very disturbing images of poor Scarlett clutching a large bandage covering her stomach while curled up on a concrete floor, chained to a wall, and whimpering as her captor came closer. In other words, super scary. Once again, my youngest son was forced to inhale the air next to my sweatshirt as I covered his ears and he closed his eyes tight. Again, why were they showing a trailer for a movie like that at Godzilla?

I don’t think I have ever been so grateful for the actual movie to start in my life. Once Godzilla began, we could all relax…sort of. I did a lot of whispering:

“I don’t want to go to Hawaii again,” my youngest said when Godzilla caused a tsunami that wiped out Waikiki.

“It’s all pretend. There is no Godzilla.”

 

“Is he really a dinosaur?”

“Umm…I’m not sure.”

“Is he extinct?”

“Well, the dinosaurs are.”

 

“I don’t like all those eggs with the moving bits inside. It’s too creepy,” I said to myself.

“Calm down,” I reassured myself. “And stop jumping and inhaling sharply. Your son is watching you to see if he should be scared.”

 

“What’s he doing?” my oldest son asked when he saw my youngest lying in my lap.

“He fell asleep.”

 

That’s right: my youngest son fell asleep during one of the loudest movies I have ever seen.

Godzilla is fun if you like giant, fictitious Alien-like creatures bent on mass destruction and a scientist who prefers to gaze thoughtfully in the distance and make pronouncements about the ferocity of nature, which as it so happens, I do. I know some criticisms have been made that there isn’t enough of Godzilla in the movie, but I rather liked the slow build and the twist in the perspective of who Godzilla is.

I’m looking forward to the next movie we can all see together. I have no idea what it will be, but I have a long list of what it won’t be, beginning with Deliver Us From Evil.

 

 

 

 

I’M NOT IN SECOND GRADE, SO WHY DO I HAVE HOMEWORK?

May 22, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

On the eve of our elementary school’s first ever International Night, the students are immersed in learning about their heritages. My fifth grade son’s class is not only steeped in the study of the birth of the United States of America, but they had to do individual projects about their own heritage as well, culminating in a Heritage Luncheon, where every student brought in a dish (made by their parents and grandparents, of course) to share from one of their countries of origin. It was a fabulous melting pot of cultures and food, and I took away two recipes that I will start making in my own home.

So when my second grader brought home their class’s instructions for a heritage project of their own to be displayed on International Night, I was all for it…until I read the instructions. My son was to dress a doll—a 6-inch tall clothespin—in clothing representative of one of their countries of origin, and the clothes had to be handmade.

I re-read the instructions, especially the line that said that parents should let their kids do their own work. I looked at the 6-inch tall clothespin. It was small and skinny, and it would be a challenge trying to manipulate fabric in sizes small enough to fit this piece of wood. Then I looked at my eight-year-old’s hands. They were small too, and still had much to learn about fine motor skills and manual dexterity. My son’s face was eager, but in the depths of his dark brown eyes lurked a perfectionist, and if this doll didn’t turn out according to the vision he had in his head, many, many tears would be shed. In that moment, I realized that even though I was a grown adult, for the next week I would have my hands full with second grade homework.

Don’t get me wrong: my son did the lion’s share of the work. He chose and cut the fabric and ribbon from the bin of fabric scraps I brought in from the garage. He sewed the tiny pair of pants and the even tinier jacket himself while I held the fabric taut for him. He spray painted a small hat after I spent 10 minutes digging around in the garage for a can of purple spray paint and setting up a work station on the driveway. I may have peeled away the lining on a piece of double-sided tape, but he was the one who pressed on the ribbon accents on the jacket and pants. In the end, his Spanish Bullfighter looked amazing!

I have seen some of his classmates’ dolls, and they look amazing too. But I guarantee that those kids had their parents’ help, and it’s not because we are all controlling parents who demand perfection in our kids (although some of us are). It’s because this project was just slightly beyond their capability at this age. But no matter: my son loved the project and he was happy with the results, and come International Night when all these second grade dolls are lined up on display in a celebration of world cultures, it is all going to be worth it.

 

 

DETERMINATION: GOOD. OBSESSION: BAD.

May 9, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

Determination is a great quality to have. After all, without determination, most of us wouldn’t get anywhere in life.

My dad used to say that even as a young child I had a healthy dose of determination. He said it with pride, for he knew that his genes were the ones responsible for this particular trait. Unfortunately for me (and him), the type of determination I inherited slips much too readily into obsession.

Determination can be defined as a firm intention to achieve a desired goal, whereas obsession, according to the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.”

So where is the line between a healthy determination and an unhealthy obsession?

I think the difference between the two lies in the ability to let go of your goal when it becomes necessary.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is a compelling account of Krakauer’s experience on Mt. Everest during the devastating May 1996 storm that led to the death of eight climbers. (If you haven’t read it, go out and read it right now.) It takes an extreme amount of determination to reach the pinnacle of Mt. Everest, the highest peak on our planet with the most extreme conditions imaginable. It takes time to hike to base camp, and it takes more time to hang around base camp acclimating to the lack of oxygen in the air. When your body is ready and the weather is cooperative, a final, treacherous climb consisting of snow, ice, and deep and dangerous crevasses lies between you and the summit. The threat of time looms over your head, for if you do not reach the summit by a certain time, then you won’t be able to make it back to base camp before dark. In other words, after all those months-to-years of training, a month at base camp acclimating to the thin atmosphere, and the healthy cost of traveling to the Himalayas, purchasing the necessary equipment, and paying for the climbing guides and sherpas, you may have to turn around before reaching the top and head back down the mountain without reaching your goal.

That is a very hard to do, especially when reaching your goal is right there. That is partly what happened in May 1996. It was one climber’s fourth time on the mountain, and he had yet to reach the summit for various reasons. But he was so close this time! His guide wanted him to finally reach his goal too, but time was running out and there were murmurings of a storm coming. That’s when determination crossed over into obsession. Despite the ticking clock, despite the threat of worsening weather, and despite the fact that continuing the climb was rapidly becoming an unreasonable idea, the climber and his guide did not let go of their goal. They persisted up the mountain, into the storm, and toward their eventual deaths.

This is why you won’t find me on Mt. Everest—that and about 50 other reasons. I know myself; I would be one of the climbers pushing towards the top despite all indications to do otherwise. I make enough poor decisions here at sea level (where it’s safer and 911 can easily reach me) in order to achieve my goals. I don’t need to do it on the world’s most dangerous mountain.

Last Sunday I ran a 10K in my small town. A strong woman runner that I had been following all morning stopped running at one point during the race. I couldn’t tell exactly what had happened (cramp? injury? old injury coming back to haunt her?), but when she stopped running, she flexed her leg several times and began to walk. As I passed her, I could only stare at her with admiration. “That is so smart,” I thought.

Further on in the race, my right calf seized. It cramped up into a hard little ball and would not relax. I should have stopped. I should have taken a couple of minutes to massage it out. I should have slowed to a walk and given my poor calf a break. Instead, I crossed over into obsession, for another strong woman runner in front of me had begun to slow down. After following far behind her for 4 ¾ miles, it was possible that now I could actually catch her. I picked up my pace a little, going for an awkward, hobbling gait to protect my calf. I got closer, but the finish line was looming, my calf was hurting, and this woman’s pace was still fairly strong. What should I do?

Because I became obsessed with trying to catch her, I made the only decision I could in the circumstances: I began to sprint. I ran flat out, my strides long, my breathing ragged, my poor calf crying great, salty tears, and I crossed the finish line in front of her. I reached my goal! (Even though I had only set this goal a little more than a mile earlier during a period of time when my mental faculties were questionable at best.). I also placed first in my age group! Obsession is a wonderful thing!

For the next few days, I either hobbled around in great pain or sat on the couch with a heat pack on my calf. “Why are you limping?” my kids asked. “Because your mother is stupid,” I muttered under my breath. Obsession sucks.

Determination is a great quality to have, but if you know you are the kind of person who can slide into obsession despite being an otherwise bright and rational person, please be careful. And for heaven’s sake, stay off Mt. Everest.

 

BROADCHURCH: ANOTHER GREAT TV OFFERING FROM THE BBC

May 5, 2014 in Reflections on Pop Culture

In the small, English seaside town of Broadchurch, where everybody knows everybody, an unimaginable tragedy has occurred: the body of eleven-year-old Danny Latimer is found on the beach at the base of the steep cliffs. It doesn’t take long for the forensic evidence to show that he did not jump, nor was this an accident. He was murdered and the inhabitants of the town begin to look at each other as possible suspects.

Broadchurch is more than a crime show, where evidence is discovered and suspects are interrogated. It is the story of a family and a community torn apart by loss, suspicion, and fear. Watching the community unravel when neighbor turns on neighbor and long-held secrets are revealed is mesmerizing.

The Detective Sergeant involved in the case is warm-hearted native Ellie Miller (love her!), herself the mother of an eleven-year-old boy named Tommy, Danny’s best friend. Tommy says he knows nothing, so why does he go to such great lengths to delete messages from Danny off of his phone and emails off of his computer?

Ellie was not pleased when she was passed over for the promotion to Detective Inspector. Her new boss Alec Hardy (with his fantastic Scottish accent) comes with his own baggage, trailing behind a failed investigation where a murderer still walks unidentified and an illness he is trying to keep hidden. Failure is not an option—not again—and his health will just have to take a back seat. Unfortunately, his body doesn’t always play by the rules.

The interplay between Ellie and Hardy is a perfect blend of acute differences converging into a sort of grudging respect. She’s warm and caring; she knows these people, and wants to treat them with respect during this difficult time. Hardy only wants the truth and will stop at nothing to get at it, even if it ruffles people’s feathers, including Ellie’s. As he is fond of saying, anyone is capable of killing someone in the right circumstances.

Danny’s father Mark does not have an alibi for the night Danny was murdered. His refusal to say where he was puts yet another strain on his marriage, which is already creaking apart in the wake of their son’s death. Jodie Whitaker, who plays Danny’s mother, is amazing in her portrayal of a mother lost in grief.

The media is unintentionally tipped off (Ellie’s nephew is a reporter: everything in this community is intertwined), creating a media circus that gathers enough strength to become a witch hunt, as facts are misunderstood and the innocent are found guilty in the minds of the frightened townspeople.

Through it all, the fact remains that a boy’s life was taken much too soon, and if the police don’t do something about it, the murderer is going to get away with it. The threads of grief, loss, suspicion, following the trail left by the killer, and the interminable waiting for an answer that may never come are woven together with a cast of characters who all have something to hide and a plot that releases mini bombshells so often that I couldn’t stop watching, even when it was way past my bedtime.

The acting is terrific and so are the accents, although I will confess that at times I had trouble understanding what they were saying. If that’s the price I must pay for being able to watch such a compelling show from the BBC, so be it. Season 1 is only 8 episodes long and I binge-watched it last week, forsaking sleep and the ability to focus on anything other than how soon I would be able to press “Play” again on my DVD player. The mystery wraps up with a heart-wrenching vengeance at the end of Season 1, but Broadchurch has been renewed for a second season so it will be interesting to see what they do next. Another murder investigation or something different? I just hope the detectives are still around, because they are fantastic.

 

 

 

 

THE ODD THINGS PEOPLE SAY TO ME

May 1, 2014 in Random Thoughts

People, especially elderly male people, say odd things to me. I have no idea why, but a wise person once suggested that I must give off some sort of aura that makes people feel comfortable enough to say anything to me because they think I won’t judge them. (That is not true. I do judge.)

My “You can say whatever crazy ass thing you want to me” aura was nurtured from a very young age by my dad. He was the King of Odd Comments, mostly in an attempt at humor. He was funny, but some of the things that came out of his mouth were also wildly inappropriate or just plain odd, which was plenty embarrassing when I was a teenaged girl. “Dad! You can’t say things like that in front of my friends!” was basically the only thing I said to him when I was between the ages of 13 and 18. That and “I really really really really want to get my ears pierced!”

ODD CONVERSATION #1:

Last year when my dad was in the hospital, I wandered down to the cafeteria to get something to eat that didn’t come out of a vending machine. I approached the counter, studied my choices, and placed my order. Right about then, an elderly gentleman sauntered to my side. “I didn’t peg you as a chicken teriyaki girl,” he said with a smile.

I was exhausted, worried about my dad, and starving. I was completely unprepared to deal with an elderly gentleman who enjoyed wandering around deserted cafeterias, trying to guess what people would order based strictly on their appearance, nor was I prepared to be referenced as a “non-chicken teriyaki girl.” How does one even respond to a comment like that?

“Wh-a-at?” I stuttered.

“I thought you’d order the salmon.” Really? I hate seafood. What about me screams “seafood lover”?

Even more importantly, why was I stuck in this conversation in the first place?

ODD CONVERSATION #2:

On a recent vacation to Turks & Caicos, my oldest son landed himself in the emergency room due to an allergic reaction to something he ate. The ER doc was from England and I wouldn’t call him elderly per se, but he was older than me.

We were led to a room that had a traditional hospital bed and two chairs. Naturally, I directed my son to the hospital bed while I sat in one of the chairs. The doctor sat in the other chair directly across from me and proceeded to give me a dirty look.

“What?” I asked.

“Are you the patient?”

“No, my son is.” Wasn’t it obvious? He was on the hospital bed! He had on the ER admittance bracelet!

“Where is the patient?”

“Um…he’s right there.” Could he not see that there was another body in the room with us?

“If you’re not the patient, you shouldn’t be sitting in that chair. The young man should sit there.” He fixed me with another dirty look.

“Um, ok.” So we switched. My son sat in the chair and I sat on the hospital bed, situating myself awkwardly on the crinkly paper.

The doctor’s demeanor completely changed. He became Mr. Smiley and Jokey with both of us, to the point where when he asked me if I had any Benadryl (Do I have any? Shouldn’t the ER have a stockpile?), and I said that I did in my purse, he rolled over on his chair and said “Ooh! She has a big bag. There could be a party in there. Let’s have a look at what’s inside.” He then proceeded to peer into my purse while I rummaged around for some Benadryl.

(I am not making this up, nor am I exaggerating for humorous effect. This is all 100% true. And to all you men out there: looking in a woman’s purse is not ok, especially if you don’t know her.)

When discussing my son’s follow-up care, the doctor, still sitting in his chair, reached up and began massaging my arm, making soothing noises about how “Mom shouldn’t worry too much. He’ll be fine and maybe you can have a glass of wine.”

A glass of wine? Seriously? Like I was going to get snockered on a glass of wine when my son could have a relapse. (I was on the island, for God’s sake. If I was going to drink anything, it was going to be a rum punch.) And what’s with the massage? Is that legal in the British West Indies?

ODD (ONE-SIDED) CONVERSATION #3:

Years ago when I was in dental school, I was assigned a charming 70ish-year-old man as a patient. He needed a new set of dentures, and since I was a student, he could get them for a song. He and his new wife came in every single week while I learned how to take the appropriate measurements, select teeth styles to match my patient’s age and gender, and set the teeth in wax so they could be processed into the final set of dentures. I wasn’t very good at it (dentures are an imprecise science) and my instructor was a stickler, so I spent a great deal of time with this couple. They were absolutely adorable. Her eyes sparkled as she regaled me with stories of how my patient surprised her at work with flowers and candy, and he beamed with pride at having landed her as his wife. Honestly, it was the sweetest thing ever.

Until the night he called my apartment and left a message on my answering machine where he said a lot of things, including those three little words you never want to hear from a 70ish-year old happily married man with no teeth: “I love you.”

Odd? Yes. Disturbing? Yes. A giant pain in the butt because I had to change my phone number? Yes.

I am glad that people feel comfortable talking to me, but if these are the kind of things people are going to say, then maybe I need to dial my aura back a bit. There has got to be a better balance between “I am a good listener,” and “You do not need an internal filter to talk to me.” A filter can be a good thing, and if you are an elderly male, two filters are even better. Trust me: it’s better this way.

Want to read more of the odd things people say to me? Click here.