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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually read. I am not someone who thrills to tales of real life violence; the True Crime section in the bookshop is of no interest to me and although I do read in-depth newspaper and magazine articles, I try to steer clear of sensationalist nonsense that seems to glamorise crime. There’s a ton of that crap about though, so clearly there’s an audience.

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two teens who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris injured another 24 people, attempted to kill many more with home made bombs which failed to detonate, and committed suicide. I haven’t read anything beyond news reports at that time, did not want to read assumptions and theories about what happened, but was interested to hear that Sue Klebold had written a book and curious to know what she had to say. I imagined it would be a painful read, and I approached it with empathy – I am a mother of teens, I know our teens make choices that aren’t comfortable for us, but this horror is unimaginable and unbearable. There are those who squarely blame the parents  – how could they not have seen who their sons were? That’s not how I think, but how do you live with that anger against you, that level of blame? How do you endure when your son is revealed to be a hate filled murderer?

This book is Sue Klebold’s attempt to do something positive. She wants to alert people to the signs she missed in her own son (that he had “brain illness”, that he was depressed, bullied, at break point. She aligns herself with other mothers of kids who committed suicide, albeit murder-suicide, and speaks about how her son wanted to die. Unlike Eric Harris, who wanted to kill. There is a clear distinction.)

Sometimes people speak passionately and the words are vivid and maybe a little messy, but heartfelt, and other times, usually when professionals speak, each word has been carefully chosen and the delivery is dry and careful. This book is the latter. It reads as if lawyers have combed through it 1,000 times for anything potentially damaging. There is nothing here but a few descriptions of her son, meaningless to anyone except her family, a few anecdotes that present him as “normal”, a lot of scientific evidence of brain illness, and an avoidance of anything potentially controversial. The first few chapters describe her disbelief as the police turn up at her home immediately after the shootings. She has no access to news but bits filter through as she waits outside while the house is searched, enough that she understands her son was involved. She assumes he was an unwilling participant, or didn’t understand what was happening, or was in thrall to Eric Harris. But she won’t describe the actual events, or what it felt like to comprehend the truth.

There is a necessary need not to offer a template for others, but what is left is not a compelling read. It’s a terrible story, but we do not learn anything here and Klebold seems reluctant to go beaneath the surface. Perhaps she can’t, our minds protect us from unbearable things, but it makes me wonder why she wrote this.

The most valuable thing in the book is not written by her. In the introduction, Andrew Solomon says, “…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity. I am aware of this delusion, because it was mine…

I came away thinking that the psychopathy behind the Columbine massacre could emerge in anyone’s household. It would be impossible to predict or recognise; like a tsunami, it would make a mockery of all our preparations.”

Which is chilling, but feels true to me. There is a tipping point when our children, necessarily so, grow away from us and all we can do is hope the foundations we have laid hold them steady. We can’t be responsible for their actions. Klebold’s efforts to get more recognition and support for people suffering mental illness is admirable and I applaud her determination to use this awful notoriety she has to do something positive. I don’t think this is a good book though. There are a variety of assertions made – “We’ve all felt angry enough to fantasise about killing someone else.” Well, no, actually I haven’t. “Most of us can’t name a single celebrity who has struggled–successfully anyway–with depression or another mood disorder…” Erm, well actually I can… There’s an attempt to present Dylan Klebold as a “normal” teen but offers scant evidence of it and all the while we know that behind his mother’s back he was writing diaries planning his suicide, filming vitriolic segments with Eric Harris, playing with guns, getting into trouble with the police.

Why would we want to judge Sue Klebold? Why would we need to? I hope she finds a peace in her activism and support. But this is a book review and this book is not great.

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Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers

  
In this collection, Evers deftly explores fatherhood. He’s an unfussy writer whose clear prose allows the stories to unfold smoothly (before sometimes tripping us up and challenging our assumptions) using small details to great effect;

“A silent cabbie aside from his metronomic sniffing.”

and

“Rosemary moved to be with her parents upsatate. Like Russian dolls, a mother retreating to her girlhood bedroom.”

“These Are The Days” is ostensibly about a relationship between a Grandfather and his Granddaughter. Twenty-one year old Anna unexpectedly turns up at her Grandfather’s home. He appears to be a doting, gentle man, but is unmasked as a negligent father and husband before once again becoming a sympathetic character as his son is revealed as a bully. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Evers makes character switches flow naturally and these grey areas are gorgeously insightful.

A man sits in a pub, waiting for his bereaved friend to arrive, rehearsing small talk in “Something Else To Say.”  Repetition is used to convey the sheer lack of anything useful one can say when someone’s child has died. All the vital stuff remains unspoken and yet is beautifully conveyed in this touching tale.

I think the title story; “Your Father Sends His Love” is astonishing. It’s definitely the best story I’ve read this year and is an incredibly powerful piece that I don’t want to ruin for anyone else by attempting to describe. I could not stop thinking about it for days after; I was haunted by it and it’s well worth the price of the book alone. As it’s positioned half way through the collection, the stories after perhaps suffer a little in comparison. “Charter year, 1972” seemed strangely clunky; a set up and a punch line.

The last story “Live From the Palladium” has a similar source to “Your Father Sends His Love” and I’m fascinated by how Evers takes this material and shapes it into such achy and perceptive fiction.

If you’re a fan of quietly powerful stories (and who isn’t?) then do give this a read.

SMASH LITS WITH NIK PERRING

This is Nik Perring –

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and this is his new book –

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Published by Roastbooks it’s gorgeous and different. It looks like a children’s picture alphabet book, except A is not for Apple, it’s for Appalachian, and F is not for Frog, but Fuck. Each word has been collected by Nik because he finds it beautiful in some way. Through his descriptions of the words we glimpse a relationship between Alexander and Lucy. It’s really a lovely book to give someone (or to treat yourself to).

Rightio, it’s time for the questions:

1) Have you ever seen a ghost?

Actually, I think I have. He was in my bedroom one night, looking through my drawers. He was slim and middle-aged – greying hair and in a baggy red sweater. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then he stood, walked through the bottom of my bed and out through the wall. He ignored me when I said, ‘Hello,’ and that’s just rude.

2) Do you know anyone named Tarquin?

Sadly not. It is a fine name.

3) Do you believe in life after love? 

I think I have to.

4) What are the 3 ugliest words?

Prejudice, because of what it means. Religion, because of what it does. And ugly, because of how it makes people feel.

5) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I don’t think I’ve seen an episode since I was in my early teens. I always liked Beth though.

6) Where do you go in your dreams?

Everywhere. Nowhere’s off limits.

7)  What is your favourite word?

Normally I’d have said something like ‘love’ or ‘trust’ but I’m going to go with one that’s in the book, and that is ‘ineludible’. Lovely, isn’t it?

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8) How much money did you spend yesterday?

Yesterday, I bought:

Ginger root – £1.

1 x packet of blue Pall Mall – £6.25.

1 x bottle of Lucozade (for my mum, she wasn’t feeling well) £1.99

And about £15’s worth of beer in the pub. (It was Beautiful Words’ publication day so I celebrated a little.)

TOTAL £24.24

9) Do flowers scream when you pick them?

Of course they do. Roald Dahl says so.

10) Can you make up a poem about tonic?

She was drinking gin and tonic

while reading a rather long comic

when the comic was done

she fell on her bum

and now her problem is chronic

(That’s brilliant!)

11) Do you have a favourite pen?

I have two Pelikan M200s which I’ve used for years. All my first drafts are written longhand so a good pen, so my wrist doesn’t get knackered, is important. It also, particularly pretentiously, makes me feel like I’m getting that little bit closer to the words. Practically, it’s good because whatever I’ve written gets a half-edit while I’m typing it up.

12) Are you more likely to make a souffle, do the ironing, or clean the toilet?

I do like to cook, but I’ve never done a souffle. Cleaning the bathroom is a necessary evil. So, ironing it is then.

13) Who is your writer crush?

Anne Sexton. Though there are a few whose stories still make me swoon: Aimee Bender, Michael Kimball, Etkar Keret, Marie-Helene Bertino, Lorrie Moore, Angela Readman. And Sara Crowley, of course.

(Smooth!)

14) Have you ever had a nickname? (Nik name haha) What?

Ha! Not really. I was Pez for a little while in school. And Cola-Bottle (as in the sweets) because I was thin and dark. Nik works much, much better, don’t you think?

15) Bacon VS Tofu. Who wins?

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I’m a reluctant non-veggie (is that a bit like conscious uncoupling??) so tofu.

16) Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

A bee, without question. Wasps are evil.

17) You are wallpaper, what is your pattern?

Whatever The Yellow Wallpaper was. (If you’ve not read it, you should. It’s wonderful.)

(I have read it. That’s a really interesting answer.)

18) How do you organise your bookshelves?

Ha ha ha ha ha!

19) Up or down?

Down, looking up.

20) What is your favourite cheese?

Actually, I can’t eat cheese because it gives me migraines (actually one of the reasons I’m not a fully committed veggie). Alexander likes cheese in Beautiful Words and, because it’s a pretty word, his favourite is Roulade. (That is a cheese, isn’t it?)

 

Thanks, Nik. I wish you lots of success with Beautiful Words. If anyone wants to know more about Nik here is his blurby stuff:

Nik Perring is a short story writer and author from the UK. His stories have been published in many fine places both in the UK and abroad, in print and online. They’ve been used on High School distance learning courses in the US, printed on fliers, and recorded for radio. Nik is the author of the children’s book, I Met a Roman Last Night, What Did You Do? (EPS, 2006); the short story collection, Not So Perfect (Roastbooks 2010); and he’s the co-author of Freaks! (The Friday Project/HarperCollins, 2012). His online home is www.nikperring.com and he’s on Twitter as @nikperring

 

 

 

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

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I couldn’t finish this book. Really, I just couldn’t. Somewhere around page 150 I flicked forwards and saw more of the same and I just could not be bothered. I’ve read every one of Coupland’s previous novels. That’s 14/15 of ’em? And whilst he is, I think, inconsistent, he has long been someone who I will always always read. Of course it’s all subjective, but, for me, when he gets it right he’s not just spot on and zeitgeisty, he’s also a writer of depth. My favourite novel of his is Hey Nostradamus! Worst. Person. Ever is definitely my least favourite. It is, apparently, “written to be funny. That’s all it’s about. It’s not going to give you special meaning about the universe.” which is fine and dandy, as long as it can sustain the humour. 

It’s written from the perspective of Raymond Gunt (ooh, look, I nearly wrote Cunt) an unemployed camera man who agrees to shoot a Survivor type show in Kiribati. His despised ex-wife is his boss. He hires a homeless man to be his assistant as he has nobody else he can ask. He’s friendless, penniless, without morals, misogynistic, and chock full of all kinds of hate. 

It started well I thought, taking me by surprise with the hilariously descriptive line:

There I was, at home in West London, just trying to live as best I could – karma, karma, karma, sunshine and lightness! – when, out of nowhere, the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz.

But x amount of pages of the same unrelenting, shockingly rude for the sake of being shockingly rude, prose becomes quickly tiresome. Gunt seemingly abuses an obese fellow plane passenger to death. He lusts after women in the basest of terms. He gets into trouble. He’s rude. Again. And then again. 

There are still some familiar Coupland moments. He describes a waitress as having “…her mind full of pseudonews” – that babble of 24 hours news streaming. He provides wry footnotes. He does write some bitingly funny lines. However, the novel read to me like a writing exercise: Write the most obnoxious character you can think of.  The hideous sexism was hard to cope with, even if it is meant to be ironic, it’s still hate. Ultimately though, the book bored me. Shame. 

 

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

For some reason I always link Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland. Maybe because they have long been my two favourite contemporary male authors. Egger’s latest novel “The Circle” definitely brings to mind “Microserfs”.  The Circle is an exciting, innovative, successful Silicon Valley company. Being employed by them is Mae’s dream job, and she is incredibly grateful to her best friend, Annie, for getting her into the organisation. We see the enticing offices through Mae’s eyes as she is given her introductory tour, taking in the freebies on offer, the glitzy, glamorous setting, the fun, the youth, the talent. She settles into her role answering online queries, determined to meet the high grade challenge on customer satisfaction and push herself ahead.

Her job quickly develops, and she keeps pace with additional screens and requests. She’s enthusiastic and happy. She socialises on the work campus, sometimes she even sleeps in one of the dorms. The Circle seems to be modelled on Google and Facebook. It integrates all internet activity so that it runs zings (tweets), searches, financial transactions, tracking, and beyond. Mae meets a guy who is doing interesting work in the field of child security. The company aims for some unclear “completion”. Its ethos is very much one of transparency, and it sets up cameras all over the world, constantly recording, reporting, watching.

“If you aren’t transparent, what are you hiding?”

All employees are given health monitors they wear on their wrists. The company cares for them. The company cares for all, including Mae’s dad who has MS and who the company begins to treat, putting up cameras all over her parent’s house to continually monitor him.

As I read I realised how Facebook began to automatically download pictures from my iPhone recently, and how Spotify shares information about what music I listen to. How I’m wearing a FitBit flex, not a million miles away from a health bracelet. How easy it is to know such a lot about me via Google. I have always been equal parts blasé and cautious about the information I share. Or, at least, I had supposed I was. Reading this made me want to immediately delete my social media profiles and run the hell away from the internet. But that moment passed, and I facebooked how I liked this book, and I’ll tweet this blog post, and I’ll post my review on waterstones.com.

Mae’s ex says to her:

“No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food.”

This is true. It seems harmless, but is it? We watch as Mae gets sucked deeper into The Circle, and we hope that she’ll be ok.

I really enjoyed this novel. The ex who likes to make one off pieces of art seemed a wee bit of an obvious foil to the giant corporation, and Annie’s heritage sounded like a clear plot device to me the second it was mentioned, but they are minor niggles about what is not only an engaging story, but a thought provoking read.

Read it and delete.

Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

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Set in Brighton and spanning the period of May 1940 – June 1941 “Unexploded” is obviously a story about war. It is, however, a deliciously layered novel whose strength is in its dealings with smaller more personal wars as well.

The novel leads us through the streets of Brighton, pointing out landmarks and features. Hitler is expected to invade and MacLeod is illuminating on the resultant atmosphere:

“Fear was an infection – airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel, and although no one spoke of it, no one was immune to it.”

Evelyn, Geoffrey and their son, Phillip, live in the heart of Brighton. They are the very picture of respectability. Geoffrey is a banker who has been selected to take charge of Brighton’s internment camp. Evelyn is a well to do woman, unused to running the house without staff, but muddling along.  She married Geoffrey “…for his intelligent kindness, for his sense of fairness, for his loyalty to people.” We begin by sharing her impression of Geoffrey as a moralistic and trustworthy pillar of the community, and then watch that impression shatter.

Unexploded continually subverts preconceptions.

Evelyn takes it upon herself to read to the sick prisoners at the camp and encounters Otto Gottlieb, a “degenerate” German-Jewish artist. He is objectionable and hostile, and yet eventually shows more humanity than Geoffrey.

The evocation of wartime suspicions is superbly done. The children that Philip play with secretly listen to Lord Haw-Haw and anticipate Hitler’s arrival with a thrill. Anti-Semitism is rife, suspicion everywhere. A playmate’s older brother has been damaged forever in the war. Phillip’s friend wants revenge for him. Games turn ever more dangerous.

As Geoffrey and Evelyn’s relationship disintegrates both form attachments to others. There is much bubbling underneath. Evelyn seeks solace and wisdom in literature and particularly in the words of Virginia Woolf. (In yet another smashed preconception she sees her butcher attending a Woolf lecture.) Otto pays tribute to the dead through his paintings. The Arts are a vital life force.

I was already a fan of Alison MacLeod’s writing before I began reading Unexploded.  I am even more so now. Her words resonate, her descriptions are clear, her ability to imagine small details transport the reader. She expertly moves the story through to its climax, and beyond. Thoroughly deserving of its Booker longlisting, this is a thought provoking and engaging novel.