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&A:

 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!

Vacation Post

I apologize for the lapse in posting – I am on vacation. I have been in NY for Passover this past weekend and today, and tomorrow I leave for Florida for a few days. I am hoping for a few mellow days in the sun, some time with my family, and some time to read!

I would like to finish (finally!) You Couldn't Forget Me If You Tried, Susannah Gora's excellent book about the teen movies of the 80s (I am in the "Some Kind Of Wonderful" chapter). I also brought Penelope Lively's latest novel, Family Album, which I picked up at a used book sale last weekend. I've had my eye on it for a while, and am about a chapter in. So far, so good. Lively is one of those writers I keep wanting to read, and keep buying, but just haven't gotten to yet. I am also hoping to finish my fourth book for Booking Mama's Shelf Discovery Book Challenge (I brought Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, by Judy Blume). And if I read ALL of those, I ALSO brought Lori Lansens' The Girls, another book that keeps dropping down the TBR list. I loved her writing in The Wife's Tale, so I am really looking forward to this one too.

So that's the reading plan.

A few other things to add:

Check out this article about Lionel Shriver in last Friday's Washington Post. She touches on a lot of the same topics as during her reading at Politics & Prose.

and

Has anyone read The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, yet? Is it as good as everyone says?

Q&A

Lionel Shriver at Politics & Prose

I had the privilege of hearing Lionel Shriver speak at Politics & Prose earlier this week. She is on tour for her new book, So Much For That, which I bought but haven't read yet. (I also heard her speak about The Post-Birthday World a while back – here's what I wrote then.) She was fascinating and entertaining, just like last time, and her reading definitely made me want to read the book.

Here is what she had to say.

Being here in DC the day after the embattled vote on health care and promoting a book about the U.S. health care system is good timing. But while that's the theme of the novel, it is a novel, not a treatise. It is about people, and it does have a plot. The timing may seem calculated, but she started writing the book before Obama was even a credible candidate. "Health care reform" wasn't even in the American lexicon yet.

Writing So Much For That was not the most commercial decision. Shriver doesn't want to write fiction so heavy that you don't want to go back to it, that you say "oh no" and go to sleep instead of reading before bed. She tried to keep the book entertaining and energetic, so that it passes quickly. She also didn't want to get weighted with politics, didn't want to write a long op-ed.

In the novel, the wife of the main character is diagnosed with an aggressive, fatal cancer – mesothelioma. The wife views death as a personal defeat, and won't face up to the fact that she is dying. Shriver based this character on a friend she had, who also died of cancer and never admitted, even up to the end, that she was dying. Shriver found it "alienating and distancing" that they never talked about her situation.

This type of denial can be very hard on a marriage, which Shriver explores in the book. First, it's impossible for the healthy spouse not to think ahead to what will happen when the sick spouse is gone, instead of being in the moment and appreciating the time left together. ("We are a forward-looking species.") Second, when one spouse is seriously ill, it upsets the power balance. The person who is sick has all the power, and the person who is well has no rights. He/she is totally dedicated to the needs of the sick person.

After the reading, Shriver answered questions.

Q: We Need To Talk About Kevin, tennis, The Post-Birthday World, and now this… these books are all so different. What is the connectivity? What makes you focus on these topics? Your writing style differs so much, too, from book to book.

A: I hate the idea of repeating myself. I try to keep myself entertained. So I have tackled different subjects. This variety is a source of pride for me. I don't want to churn the same thing out over and over. As for the connection, it's a sensibility, and a bit of perversity. I create characters who are famously difficult to like, though *I* like them. Why write about perfect people? I want to write about real people who have problems and sometimes disappoint. People who don't conform to stereotype. I don't want to write about people who obey the rules. I like to say the unsayable and bring subtext to the surface.

There is a place for niceness in the world – I do respect a certain moral order and people who do nice things. But I like moral complexity. In this case – how much is one life worth? Is it right to spend $2 million to extend a life by 3 months, if that life is miserable?

I try to vary my prose style, but I am stuck with myself – it is my voice, after all.

Q: There is a similarity between the marriage here and the marriage in Kevin. You seem to write about the powerlessness of good people, needy people. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel in this dynamic?

A: Yes. There is a paradigm where virtuous people get taken advantage of. People are all too happy for others to take responsibility for them. This is a social problem – in the U.K., 45% of families are net beneficiaries of the state. As for a light at the end of the tunnel – this book has a happy ending. The reader has earned it, and so has Shep [the main character].

Q: Tell us about heath care reform and this book.

A: I didn't jump on the health care reform bandwagon, but that doesn't mean I didn't have political motivations. I did want health care to change in this country. I wish the book had come out a year ago. The bill that passed is better than nothing, in that it adjusts some of the most egregious problems, but I wish it did more about the actual cost of health care. We are now stuck with private health care for the next 20 years. Most countries have universal health care, which is fairer and, more important, cheaper.

Q: You write a lot about food – would you ever write a novel about food?

A: I do write deliberately about food, which is a sensory business. I also think the way people cook says a lot about them. Food is very useful that way. I have strong feelings about food, and I cook a lot!

Q: What are your feelings about euthanasia?

A: It depends on the circumstances, and individual choice, up to a point. It also becomes an economic choice. Keeping people alive when they are not present is very expensive, and I am against it. We have to start answering these questions practically and brutally.

This is how I approach life: FEEL WELL, and don't take for granted how well you feel. So many people in the U.S. are "pre-sick". We should spend less money on end-of-life care, and we need a different way of living and regarding ourselves in our bodies. Let's appreciate that our bodies work, instead of being in a state of fear about our bodies.

Q. Who were your literary influences?

A: Richard Yates, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky growing up, but I can't read them anymore – they are too dense. Also, Robert Stone and Edith Wharton.

Q&A With Lionel Shriver, Author of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

Last week, the online book club for We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, took place on EDIWTB. Lionel Shriver graciously agreed to answer questions about the book. Here are her responses, which I found to be very interesting:

Q: For some reason, it was very important for me to know whether, in the end, Franklin finally understood what his son was capable of (and that Eva had, all along, been right). Was it your intent, through Eva's depiction of the expression on his face in the end as "so disappointed", to confirm that Franklin was finally aware of who his son really was?
 
A: Well, yes, but with one caveat: the scene in which Franklin registers what his son is up to–that is, er, the boy is about to murder his own father and sister–does indeed portray Franklin as suddenly having to reorder his entire universe.  In Eva's imagination it is the very paralysis of this reconfiguration of reality that leads to his death.  But that's the caveat: "in Eva's imagination."  That scene takes place in her head; obviously, she was not present at the time.  It's up to you whether you believe it or not.
 
Q. I understand that you did painstaking research into other, real-life school shootings in your writing of Kevin.  In fact, Kevin contemplates that the Gladstone shooting in some ways affected some of the school shootings that came later, such as (real-life) Columbine. Have you ever gotten criticism for using real-life incidents – and such painful ones as that – as plot elements in your fictional story?
 
A: No, I've never been criticized for that, nor do I think I should be.  Fiction writers avail themselves of realtiy–or the bits that suit them–all the time.  I did not, alas, concoct the idea of school shootings all on my lonesome.  I got it from the newspaper.  Moreover, thematically it was important to me to set the fictional incident within the context of a sadly long history of similar incidents, because I believe that as Eva notes "these are all copy-cat crimes."  School shooting is a fad.  These kids get the ideas from the news, just as I did.  So I thought it was important that the news play a part in the novel.
 
Q:  How long did it take to write the initial draft and did you try to keep in the mind of Eva while writing this book?
 
A: All told, the novel took a couple of years.  Obviously, that involved living in Eva's head a proportion of the time.  But I still read other people's books and remembered to buy brocolli.
 
Q: Frank was so passive which helps the telling of the story. Did you feel you couldn't tell the same story with a stronger father figure? 
 
A: Franklin probably seems more passive because Eva is telling the story, and also because he never writes back to her.  Sure I could have used a different character.  All the characters could have been different.  There's an element of the arbitrary in all fiction.  That said, I did deliberately solicit exasperation from my reader in relation to his apparent naivete.  Exasperation is a powerful emotion, and a participatory one.  
 
Q: Did you base any of Kevin's "wrongdoing" – the Liquid Plumr in Celia's eye, the exczema incident, etc. – on real life incidents?

 
A: No, I made all of them up.  A few simply derived from my own fears.  I've always been terrified of drain cleaner.  I read once about some young woman committing suicide by drinking the stuff, and the story stayed with me.  I couldn't think of a more horrible way to die.
 
Q: I read in the extra materials in the back of the book that your editor suggested that you allude to rather than actually include the massacre scene at the school. What did he/she have to say about the scene in the backyard?
 
A: It wasn't my editor but my ex-agent.  Who is an idiot.  She hated the whole book really, so I suppose she hated the scene in the backyard, too.
 
Q: One reviewer piqued my interest when she wondered if there was any significance to the names of the characters. If so, would you let me in on that? 
 
A: Mmm, I always think hard about the names especially of main characters.  I wanted Eva to be Armenian, which meant her surname had to end in "ian."  I found Katchadourian in the phone book, and liked its musicality.  But to counter the heaviness and rarity of that surname, I wanted Kevin to have an ordinary Christian name, and I liked the alliteration of another K.  Since Franklin is fiercely patriotic, I liked using a name that alludes to a colonial hero, Benjamin Franklin.  And it's a little less common than Frank.  
 
Q: I am curious why this scene was put in the story – when Kevin is sick and then acts like a 'normal' child. What was this to show us – that he did love his mother? That the way he was was an act?
 
A: Kevin is one big act.  That scene helps to demonstrate that Kevin's coolness and inaccessibility takes a great deal of energy to generate.  When he's sick, he doesn't have the resources to keep acting so tough, needless, and aloof.
 
Q: Where did the foundation for Kevin's character come from? Why does he show no remorse?
 
A: Kevin was a patchwork job, taken from a host of kids I've met at one time or another, and wasn't based on any one person.  As for remorse, I think he does exhibit an inkling of if–most tangibly when he gives Celia's glass eye back, and then has the consideration to warn Eva not to open the box.  He's slowly turning into a human being.  Yet it's only dramatic for him to start to clue up to what an awful and utterly unnecessary thing he has done at the end of the novel if for the rest of the novel he's been refusing to show any regret.