Tag Archives: Deborah Copaken Kogan

THE RED BOOK by Deborah Copaken Kogan


From the moment I learned about The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan, I knew I wanted to read it. The Red Book is an alumni report that Harvard alums receive every five years in advance of their college reunions. Classmates submit updates on what they have been up to for the previous 5 years. Some submit long reports of their successes and accomplishments, while others just let Harvard print their last known address and leave it at that. (I have a friend who calls it absolutely addictive, compulsive reading.) Kogan’s The Red Book is about four friends from Harvard ’89 who are attending their 20th reunion, and it opens with their four submissions.

The rest of the book is about their 20th reunion weekend in early June, 2009. I found The Red Book to be totally engrossing and a very satisfying read. Kogan writes with such insight about modern parenthood and relationships, as well as work-life balance and friendships. I was surprised to see a wide range of review of The Red Book on Amazon – some people deem it to be about “white people problems”, which is totally fair. But I enjoyed reading about those white people problems.

Kogan is a really good writer, which shows through on every page. I loved her observations, her sympathy for her characters, even when they were acting irrationally or entitled. Loved this sentence: “Bucky, it saddens her to realize, has become any one of those besuited shadows one sees on the LIRR platform, waiting with equal indifference for both train and death.” Also this one about the meeting of the ’89 alums and some students:

The two groups stand face-to-face, mirror images of one another distorted by a gulf of two decades, each feeling superior to their time-warped counterpart for reasons only the older group can fathom. The current students see the pasty alumni and think poor, sad, balding sacks, trying to relive their long-gone youth. The alumni – who know exactly what the young’uns are thinking, thank you very much, giving them the ironic advantage in this hall of mirrors standoff – see the current students both as they appear today and as they will one day become, as if witnessing it all in stop-motion flash forward: the disappointments, the broken vows, the friends and family laid to rest; the loves lost, the pounds gained, the compromises and the sad surprises and the football-size lemons swallowed whole.

Yes, the book is elitist, and perhaps the characters’ problems aren’t really that relatable by much of the world beyond the Ivy League, Brooklyn and LA. But I loved reading this book – it got me through some long, sleepless nights with a newborn and I always picked it up eagerly. There are a few plot twists that are a bit far-fetched (like the inevitable pregnancy resulting from a one-night stand), but they didn’t bother me too much.

I read Kogan’s other novel – Between Here and April – and I didn’t love it. In my opinion, The Red Book is a big improvement and shows her growth as a writer.  Like I said in my last review, if the subject matter appeals to you, I highly recommend The Red Book. If it sounds like the characters and Harvard name-dropping will irritate you, then take a pass.

BETWEEN HERE & APRIL by Deborah Copaken Kogan

KoganThis month's EDIWTB book club pick was Between Here and April, by Deborah Copaken Kogan. It is about Lizzie, a mom and former war journalist in her 30s with two young daughters living in New York City with her husband. When the book opens, she has started having flashbacks about a classmate from first grade who disappeared a few months into the school year. At the time, Lizzie didn't investigate, or even question, her friend's absence, but when she starts experiencing panic attacks, she links them to thoughts about her friend's fate. The rest of the book explores Lizzie's investigation into her classmate April's death, her relationships with her husband and her mother, and an unresolved relationship with an Italian photojournalist with whom she used to be involved.

There is a lot in Between Here and April to recommend it. Deborah Copaken Kogan hits the nail on the head throughout the book in her depiction of modern marriage and childraising, including the neverending politics surrounding the division of labor in the household and the struggles facing working moms. I also found her descriptions of some of the mother-daughter relationships in this book to be very poignant, almost painful at times. The trust that young children place in their parents and their eternal belief that their parents are good people and that they love them – this theme comes up again and again in Between Here and April.

Here is a passage I liked a lot, from the beginning when Lizzie is waiting in the bathroom line at a theater:

And as I stood there in line and waited, mentally transforming each woman in front of me into a giant uterus, giving birth to other girls, other uteruses, telescoping out one by one from the original like the matrioshka dolls Tess used to love to split open and toss about the living room floor, heads rolling under couches, torsos under chairs, which every night I carefully gathered and reassembled, so that she could scatter them once again, I thought about all those mother and mothers-to-be, chugging along, finding detours around all those inconveniences and compromises that would have to be weighed and measured and fought over and swallowed while the men went about their business, zip-release-zip, unhampered and unfettered, along the conveyor belts of their lives.

Ultimately, though, I found this book to have a few flaws. First, almost everyone in the book has a mother who either killed herself, attempted to kill herself, suffered from serious depression, or died young (Mark, Renzo, Lizzie, April, Adele, even Lizzie's kids at one point…). The parallels between all of these motherless children seemed a bit forced to me. The theme was almost too relentless. If Copaken Kogan's point is that every mother experiences these feelings at some point, I think she could have made it with more subtlety.  

Second, there was just too much in here. Lizzie's awful experience in Bosnia seemed unnecessary, and the fact that she had never sought therapy for it (nor told her husband about it) was unthinkable. Add the bondage sex theme to the mix, along with its implications for male-female power in relationships, and it just felt like the author was trying too hard. Infidelity, depression, work-family balance, war, rape, marriage – that's a lot to cover in under 300 pages. The book would have been just as powerful without some of the additional layers.

All that said, I enjoyed reading Between Here and April. Copaken Kogan's statements about motherhood – some of the darkest and most honest out there – are moving, and make a strong case for paying attention to post-partum depression and depression in general.

Thank you again to Algonquin for supplying the books for this month's book club. I look forward to reading everyone's comments below!

January Book Club: BETWEEN HERE AND APRIL by Deborah Copaken Kogan

I am happy to announce the January EDIWTB book club selection: Between Here and April, by Deborah Copaken Kogan. I received a review copy of this book from Algonquin a few months ago, and thought it would make a good book club selection. Here's a blurb from Amazon:

Kogan How could a mother kill her children? This breathtaking first novel from photojournalist Kogan attempts a heart-wrenching answer. Elizabeth Lizzie Burns Steiger, a
41-year-old TV producer/journalist, has a hallucination while watching
a performance of Medea at a Manhattan theater; she sees her
best friend in first grade, April Cassidy, who was killed by April's
depressed mother, Adele, in 1972 in Potomac, Md., along with April's
sister. In addition to exploring her memories in therapy, Lizzie
interviews the Cassidys' former neighbor and others who knew the family
for a proposed cable network documentary, but a priceless Pandora's
box—tapes of Adele with her psychiatrist—provides the most startling
revelations. Kogan skillfully interweaves Lizzie's struggles with her
troubled marriage, parenting and a personal trauma shared in the
Balkans with a former lover in this unflinching portrait of filicide,
which still manages to find light in the darkness of a very disturbing
subject.

The Washington Post says Between Here and April may be "the perfect book club book".

Caribou's Mom says:

Kogan’s writing is sharp, intuitive and hypnotic. I always enjoy novels
written by journalists who have honed their writing skills to get to
the core of the story quickly, and who know how to create tension and
conflict between characters. This is not a book for everyone. Many
readers will be disturbed by the images Kogan creates. The subject
matter will turn many readers off. But, those readers willing to follow Kogan into the darkness will be rewarded with a story not soon
forgotten.

Book a Week with Jen says: "It's a well written, moving read (though not perfect — the end is
odd). And it's one of those books that had me thinking about it long
after I'd put the book back on the shelf."

If you can handle the dark topic, please join me here for the book club discussion for Between Here and April. Algonquin has generously agreed to send 15 copies of the book to EDIWTB readers who sign up. Once the books go out, I will pick a day (probably late January or early February so that people have enough time to read it), and will post a review of the book. Book club participants (and anyone who else who has read the book) are encouraged to post their thoughts in the comments to keep the discussion going. We may also get Deborah Copaken Kogan to answer questions in a later post.

If you're interested in participating, please send an email to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com with your contact info in the following format:

Name

Mailing Address

Email address

The first 15 people who email me will receive copies of the book.

Thank you to Algonquin!!