Tag Archives: lionel shriver

Literary Fiction for Summer

I have a post in the most recent issue of Readerly Magazine about some rewarding literary fiction picks for summer. If you’re looking for something substantive, you might enjoy these books from some of my favorite authors.

Q&A with Lionel Shriver, “Big Brother”

Yesterday, I reviewed Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Here are my notes from a Q&A with Shriver about Big Brother that I attended last month at Politics & Prose here in DC. I hope this helps provide more color around Big Brother – I certainly found that it did.

Her commentary about Big Brother:

Big Brother by Lionel ShriverThis is a book about a sibling relationship – an intense relationship together as children that bonded them. Pandora wants for herself the wholesome solidity she identified with her father’s parents in Iowa, where the book is set. She likes modesty and authenticity. Edison is competitive with their father, and wants to see his name in lights, make a name in the world. There is a different trajectory for these two.

Edison is handsome, but has now fallen on hard times. Pandora, on the other hand, became accidentally successful. Career success is a running theme in the book, as is obesity.

This is a book that looks at the larger issue of appetite. Career success and food themes come together. In the book, Pandora concludes, “we are meant to be hungry”, and that the state of satiety is not to be envied. Desires give us a sense of direction and energy, a place to go toward. When you have you what you want, life becomes a static experience.

Success is an absence of pain, but it’s pleasant and mild. “Suffering, though, has an intensity that contentment doesn’t. Sometimes I miss the drive that the other gave me.” As far as being successful, Shriver is “doomed to consider myself very lucky”.

The small sacrifice that having a higher profile has brought: attention has shifted from the book and her brother (whom the book is loosely about) to her. Book reviews talk about her diet and her exercise routine. This has illustrated what the book is about: the excessive importance we place on physical size. We’ve gone existentially backwards.  The observations on people’s size has become “a sick spectator sport”. She was exposed to it for weeks.


 Q: Why make your home in London? Most of your books are set in the U.S.

A: I was living in Belfast, and was going to spend one year there and instead spent 12. My partner there got a job in London, and I owed him, so we moved. We split up, but I have career reasons to be in London – a large readership, and I am better known there. I’ve been in the U.K. for 26 years. It has become a big part of my identity. I do think about what it would be like to move back to the U.S. – it would be relaxing but would cause an identity crisis.

Q: This book is deeply personal and different from your other books.

A: Not exceptionally so. There is usually some personal element that has drawn me to a topic. I lost my brother [to obesity], so it makes sense that this book would come now. But I am not an autobiographical writer. I find that when I am forthcoming, I get the “autobiographical” tag thrown in my face. Especially with female writers – the term is meant to be diminishing, like you can’t make stuff up. With Big Brother, it helped to have something to work through. With So Much For That, I had lost my closest friend to the disease in the book, and was contending with my own mortality.

Fiction can combine abstract/social issues with something personal and close to home. It is the illustration of the minutiae of an issue.

Q: Has writing books gotten easier?

A: Writing books hasn’t gotten any easier, which seems unfair. I had no confidence in this book for its entirety. I only decided I liked it at the final draft. It was very anxious-making.

Q: Why did you change your name at 15 years old?

A: I hated it; it wasn’t the right name for me. I am glad I did it when I did. The longer you put it off, the harder it is.

Q: What did you learn about out-of-control appetite? Did writing the book give you any understanding into our celeb-obsessed culture?

A: We turn to food to satisfy other appetites that food can’t satisfy. If you’re eating because you’re lonely, you can eat the whole fridge and you will still be lonely. “Comfort eating” is a weird expression. You won’t feel better at the end – eating comfort food generally makes you feel dumpy and irritated with yourself.

As for celeb-obsessed culture: Why don’t young people have more ambition to achieve, or make something? We have blurred career success and celebrity. Why is it interesting or exciting to get a picture in a magazine? I think it has to do with the prevalence of visual images. I deliberately made Pandora, the narrator of Big Brother, a little overweight. It is important that she has her own food issues. She is able to speak candidly, and get a little further under the surface.

BIG BROTHER by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, Big Brother, is an Issue Novel, like her last one, So Much For That, which took on the health care system.  In Big Brother, Shriver takes on obesity from a lot of angles – what causes the urge to overeat, how the non-obese see the obese, the impact obesity has on those watching from the sidelines.

The main characters are Pandora and her brother Edison, who has ballooned from 163 to over 300 pounds. When he comes for a visit from NY to her home in Iowa, she hasn’t seen him in four years, and is horrified by his altered appearance. Big Brother is about how the two relate to each other and the lengths to which Pandora will – and won’t – go to help him. What responsibility do we owe to a sibling in despair?

There’s a lot to like in Big Brother: Shriver’s brilliant-as-always writing; her perspective, which is thoughtful and unique as always; her honesty and willingness to delve into issues many of us don’t want to read about or discuss; her memorable characters. This isn’t a feel-good book, nor did I find it to be a page-turner, but it was a compelling read. (It IS a Lionel Shriver book, after all.) Like in So Much For That, I got the sense reading Big Brother that Shriver had an agenda, an issue, that she wrote a book around, rather than a story that erupted into a novel.

And then there’s the ending. I won’t get into it here to avoid spoilers, but there was a typical Shriver-ian twist that put the whole book into a different light.  It is sure to alienate some readers, and I was certainly taken aback by it, but for me it ultimately didn’t detract from what the novel was trying to do.

I went to a Q&A with Lionel Shriver last month where she delved into her motivations for writing Big Brother. I will post the Q&A tomorrow – definitely worth a read if you want to learn more about this book.

I recommend this one with the caveats above. Know what you’re getting into, and beware the ending, and you won’t be disappointed.

Parent’s Worst Nightmare Books

I just started a new book (The Good Father by Noah Hawley), and as I’ve been reading it, I keep thinking, “Wow, this is every parent’s worst nightmare.” This is a common theme among a lot of memorable books I’ve read. Whether it’s kids disappearing, committing violent acts, becoming addicted to drugs, or losing themselves in sex or other destructive behavior, these plots have cropped up again and again in my reading.

Here are the ones that come to mind:

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver – this is by far the pinnacle of Parent’s Worst Nightmare books, for lots of reasons. I probably think about this book once a day. (difficult son is school shooter)
  • Cost by Roxana Robinson (son addicted to heroin)
  • A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein and Trespass by Valerie Martin (sons get involved with “undesirable” women, often with destructive consequences for parents and their relationship)
  • Breaking Her Fall by Stephen Goodwin (daughter performs sex acts at high school party; father goes ballistic)
  • Goldengrove by Francine Prose (daughter drowns)
  • I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (daughter abducted)
  • Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, The Local News by Miriam Gershow, and The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond (disappearing kids)

These books are so disturbing that sometimes I wonder why I read them. They bring on all kinds of fears and anxiety. But they are also intense and deeply involving reads, which is of course why we read in the first place, right?

What are your Parent’s Worst Nightmare picks?

Lionel Shriver on the Movie Version of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

When it comes to books being made into movies, I always have an opinion. And the more I like the book, the stronger the opinion. Sometimes I worry that I liked a book so much that the movie will never compare… such as with The Namesake (loved the book, liked the movie almost as much), or with The Time Traveler’s Wife (loved the book, didn’t think the movie measured up, though it was a noble effort).

Sometimes I am reluctant to see the movie, either because the book was difficult to read (The Kite Runnertoo violent/disturbing) or because I just didn’t like the book much at all (Water for Elephants).

I’ve come across a movie adaptation that I am very scared to see for two reasons – 1) I loved the book and can’t imagine a movie doing it justice; and 2) it’s the most disturbing book I have ever read and I don’t know if I can sit through it, knowing what I know is going to happen. That book, of course, is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (reviewed here).

Lionel Shriver was recently interviewed by The Guardian about her own feelings about the movie adaptation of her bestseller. It’s a fascinating read – check it out here. I really enjoyed this article. (H/T to TLB for passing it along!)

Will you see “We Need to Talk About Kevin”?

SO MUCH FOR THAT by Lionel Shriver

Shriver I just finished Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, and frankly don’t know where to start. Like the other two books I have read by Shriver (The Post-Birthday World and We Need To Talk About Kevin), So Much For That is an intense read, one that will undoubtedly have reverberations for me for months and years to come.

So Much For That is Shriver’s much-discussed exploration of our modern healthcare system, as told through the story of Glynis and Shep Knacker, a middle-aged couple living in Westchester. Shep, a handyman who made a small fortune after selling his business, is toiling away in a demeaning job and biding his time until he can begin The Afterlife – the retirement to an exotic Third World destination that he has been planning for many years. Glynis, his sharp-edged and difficult wife, is diagnosed with mesothelioma just when Shep has finally decided to make The Afterlife a reality. This confluence of Shep’s finally deciding to leave his responsible, financially overcommitted life just when Glynis is most dependent on that responsible life and its accompanying (though vastly insufficient) health insurance is what sets Shriver’s novel in motion – with riveting, horribly disturbing, yet ultimately redemptive results.

I think Shriver is a brilliant writer, as I’ve written here before. She is so thoughtful, opinionated, and eloquent that her books are almost like sucker punches at times – they get you right where you are most sensitive, and leave you reeling. I’ve read some reviews of So Much For That that criticize her for using the book as a soapbox for her opinions about health care and the cost of saving, or simply preserving lives, and I’ve read others that call her anti-American and self-indulgent. So what? Whether you agree with her politics or her stance on health care reform, her incisive and “searing” (says the book jacket) exploration of Glynis’ diagnosis and treatment for cancer is powerful and thought-provoking, and ultimately very sad.

I haven’t even gotten to the secondary characters – Shep’s ailing father, his leech of a sister, or his best friend Jackson and Jackson’s daughter Flicka, who suffers from a rare degenerative disease called familial dysautonia. These characters aren’t particularly likable, but they are well-drawn and complex, and contribute richly to the book. However, Glynis’ experience throughout the book, and how her cancer affects Shep and their marriage, was the most powerful part to me.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but I think anyone who knows someone who has lived with cancer (and who doesn’t at this point?) should read this book. It is not a difficult or boring book, as I feared it might be based on the topic, but it is a tough one in other respects. Yet totally worth it.

My only quibble is with the ending (as usual). It tied up a little too neatly, and the redemption at the end was a bit too simplified for me.

I heard Shriver speak about this book a few months ago at Politics & Prose – here is a recap. The post is definitely more meaningful now that I’ve read the book.

Ok, now I want to talk about this book – who has read it?

Introduction to the TBR Pile

My TBR pile is even more out of control than usual. I think this week I will take pictures of the various places I have TBR books stashed – and there are multiple places. It's daunting.

I have the books vaguely prioritized into the following categories:

Books I REALLY REALLY want to read SOON.

Books I REALLY want to read SOON.

Books I want to read soon.

Books I want to read at some point.

Books I want to read eventually.

I received a reader request to pull the curtain back on the TBR list and reveal a bit of what's on there. So, i think I will start a regular feature where I list some of the books in the top categories, above, and why they are on the list.

This is also a way to pay back the publicists who have kindly sent me review copies, because while I may not review the books soon, at least I can give them some visibility. Also, it's a good way to get some reader feedback on these books. Do they deserve to be on the TBR list?

So here are a few books on the I REALLY REALLY want to read SOON list.

1. Carolyn Parkurst, The Nobodies Album. I talked about this book on the blog here, and want to read it in part because I enjoyed her earlier book Lost and Found, which is a fictionalized account of contestants on a show like "The Amazing Race". I opted not to pick this one up this week after just finishing This One Is Mine, because I wanted a change from the LA setting.

2. Bonnie Burnard, Suddenly. I can't believe I haven't gotten to this one yet. Burnard is a Canadian writer, and I was so excited to get my hands on this copy early. I loved her book A Good House (which I read many, many years ago) and this one looks great too.

3. Lionel Shriver, So Much for That. I went to Lionel's book reading in March, and I love Lionel Shriver, so this one is high on the list.

4. Kim Wright, Love in Mid-Air. I am reading this for the Manic Mommies May book club. Thought it looked interesting.

Let me know what you've read and whether these books should be on the top of the TBR list!