Review: „We Need To Talk About Kevin“ by Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin is an epistolary novel in which Eva Khatchadourian (Kevin’s mother) recapitulates the story of Kevin’s life – from the point on at which she and her husband decided to get a child, during her pregnancy, Kevin’s childhood and adolescence until the day she now only calls Thursday, when Kevin did something so horrifying it changed the life of his family (and not only theirs) forever.

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I have to admit, I went into reading this book with completely erroneous expectations as to what the novel was going to be about. One reason might be the fact that I was reading it as part of the „syllabus“ of the #YearOfHorror bookclub established by chapterstackss on youtube – hence, I was expecting it to be a horror novel, which for me always includes a supernatural element, otherwise I personally tend to classify it as a thriller. Therefore I assumed that the eponymous Kevin would be a boy possessed by a demon or some other external force that made him evil. Instead, the story does not offer a clear-cut explanation for Kevin’s behavior, be it psychological or supernatural. The reader is confronted with a cruel and sadistic character treating the people around him with intelligent malvolence. Just because.

Kevin seems to be carrying with him a great deal of coldness and hatred towards the world has such and especially his mother even as a baby. In the years to follow he does not only scare away one nanny after another but also every potential playmate and their parents. The only one not creeped out by him is his father, who clings to seeing his son as the perfect all-American boy with whom he can play baseball and visit history museums. Kevin’s capability to keep up this illusion of the ideal son works to underline the inventive cruelty with which he treats other people – even his little sister, who, after all he is doing to her, still puts childish trust and loyalty into him.

You can only punish people who have hopes to frustrate or attachments to sever; who worry what you think of them. You can really only punish people who are already a little bit good.

There are scenes in this book which will probably haunt me for years to come, and at times it was difficult for me to continue reading because I was already preventively horrified of what Kevin would do next; afraid of how Kevin always managed to find out what exactly could be the worst thing he could do to a person. Regardless, We Need To Talk About Kevin has become one of my favorite books, because it is so much more than simply a mindless stringing together of sadistic acts!
This novel made me be immensely emotionally involved and made me feel for people, all of which are not even really likeable. Lionel Shrivers way of writing is dense and at times complicated (our letter writer, Eva, is intellectual bordering on pretentious, and her letters and choices of words display this excellently), she oscillates between writing out cruel truths bluntly and directly and hiding them between the lines. In this way, the book pulled me in, and as hard as it sometimes was to read on, it was even harder to put the book down.

So many topics are mentioned in the book, like motherhood, guilt, responsibility, American-ness, and so many different opinions on said topics that it provides endless food for thought. All in all, We Need To Talk About Kevin goes far beyond being „just“ a book about a priviledged teenager committing a massacre and I highly recommend it!

Review: „Cop Town“ by Karin Slaughter

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Some years ago I was quite a big fan of her Grant County series, but after [SPOILER —] Jeffrey was killed I angrily chose to ignore her writings for a bit…

cop town, though, made me very glad that I stopped sulking and picked up a book by Karin Slaughter again! I immediately remembered why I used to love her books and I definitely agree whenever I read that she is claimed to be one of the best thriller writers around.

cop town is more than a mere thriller, though. The novel takes places in Georgia, Atlanta, in 1974; it is a story about the suffocating atmosphere in a town with extremely conservative views on women, people of color, jews, gays – minorities in general. The reader accompanies two women, Maggie and Kate, trying to make their way in a police department dominated middle-aged straight white males who have a hard time accepting women as their colleagues.

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As if it wasn’t enough that those male officers try to make their job as hard as possible, both protagonists have a lot to handle besides police work.

Maggie is the third police officer in her family. Both her uncle and her brother work at the same department as her and won’t even stop putting her down at home. Things get even more complicated when her brother seems to lie about some aspects of his meet-up with the cop killer the whole force is looking for.

Kate may come from an overall supportive family but they still make it quite clear that they would like her to have a less risky job. Additionally, she is still dealing with the death of her late husband; furthermore she is being stalked by a creepy stranger into whose mind the reader gets some glimpses.

The book is dripping with an atmosphere of violence and prejudice. While it does not hold the thriller-typical suspense I expected, I enjoyed it even more than I had thought I would. Maggie and Kate are real, believable and totally badass characters. It was an interesting experience to dive into this world, at times seeming as if from a violent and prejudiced past, but, of course, all the more real today.

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Traveler DC 120

Review: „The Slow Professor“ by Maggie Berg & Barbara K. Seeber

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[I have published this review before on my Hell Yeah, Campus Novels! blog]

I know, the cover kind of gives off the vibe of an kafkaesque but adorable story of a professor turning into a snail, but that’s not the case.

Instead, in this Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber combine the ideas of the Slow Movement with issues in academia.

I might be – as usual – ten million steps ahead of myself reviewing this as a student and not a professor (slow or otherwise), but I’ll do my best. But, because, student’s, too, deserve reminders for taking it slow, have three very good blog posts about the benefits of just chilling the fuck out: On Graduate Destiny & Academic Disenchantment and Reading My Way to Recovery by @ablogwithaview and this answered ask by @dukeofbookingham.

Anyway. Time to finally get to the review, right?

The Slow Professor is, in a way, part self-help book, part manifesto. As is says on the cover, it challenges the culture of speed, the culture of always publishing the most, of always being (or at least looking) the busiest and of always having the commercialise-able-estest findings. Because in that way you not only might lose your passion for teaching, alienate the students, make your research ultimately more superficial BUT also, and, in itself a reason to listen to this book: damage your mental health.

„We need time to think, and so do our students. Time for reflection and open-ended inquiry is not a luxury but is crucial to what we do.“ (x)

Something that made the reading experience very intimate was that it is written in the first person and that the authors don’t shy away from talking about their own experiences. They begin by talking about how they, at first, found it difficult to admit to others that they struggle – “Academic training includes induction into a culture of scholarly individualism and intellectual mastery; to admit to struggle undermines our professional identity. (4) – but, as they did, found out that they are not alone.

They talked about academic guilt, the feeling of never doing enough and how flexible working hours “can easily translate into working all the time or feeling that one should.” (19) Other problems are the corporatization of higher education with both the need for extremely fun, orignial and sellable findings and an emphasis on “customer satisfaction” when it comes to the treatment of student. (With regards to this, they mention that the stress students in higher education experience, was supposedly widely acknowledged nowadays. These are things I cannot really agree with – I do not really have the feeling that student’s stress is acknowledged, many people still seem to think being a college/uni student is all light and breezy and 50% holidays of the year. The idea of ‘customer satisfaction’ is, in this context, strange to me, too, but after all I luckily don’t study in a country were university is as expensive as in The States/Canada/The UK …)

The feelings of guilt are, of course, especially prevalent in the humanities, which are, useless and rightfully underfunded after all. (I’m being sarcastic, friends. I run a literature blog.)

After talking about the problems they tell the reader about their experiences with conventional self-help books for academics. While I often think I am too bitter a person to still be surprised by anything, I was quite shocked at the horrendous working hours they proposed and at the uncollegiality of simply externalizing your pressure and let the research assistants to everything, or the simple (and asshole-ish) little tip of just don’t make time to have a chat with colleagues.

But, once we’ve swallowed all these depressing things, it’s time for chapters containing the advice! Yay! This part of the book consists of four sections: Time Management and Timelessness, Pedagogy and Pleasure, Research and Understanding and Collegiality and Community.

Of course each section contained way more than I could put down here, otherwise I would just reproduce the book, but as a short and sweet summary:

The chapter on time proposes the idea of making space for something you could call an un-managed time, the state of timelessness were you can spend hours on really getting into your research and writing, basically losing yourself without constantly looking at the clock were the deadlines inevitably tick closer.

Pedagogy and Pleasure is mainly about the athmosphere in the classroom and offers detailed step-for-step advice on how to make teaching sessions more enjoyable both for the professors and the students, which leads to a better group climate and, ultimately, to more fruitful discussions.

In Research and Understanding they talk more about the above mentioned need to publish not only fast and frequent but also put forward extra-original findings which are hip and trendy and easily marketable. To counter this, they propose ways to engage more deeply with the research topics, not to compare yourself to others with their impressive publication lists (after all, you don’t see their list of rejected writings), and to maybe let your stuff simmer on a low flame for a while before you present it half-cooked to the public.

The last chapter is about the atmosphere on campi where every one follows this horrible advice from the self-help book above (I’ll never be over this) and instead of chit-chat with colleagues you are confronted with empty hallways, in a kingdom of isolation and you are its queen. (I have not even watched Frozen. I just want to be marketable to The Youth™!)

The conclusion, aside from being a conclusion, is about how enjoyable it was to write the book in team work. Which was sweet. My heart was happy.

Well. All good things come to an end so I should maybe slowly get to the point where I shut up.

All in all the book is an enjoyable read I full-heartedly agree with. I want to do the Martin Luther and nail it to university doors!

The only drawback of it is, that not literally every person in the world (or in academia) has read this book yet. Which, sadly, makes it harder to actually live in line of all those ideas about slowness. While you, as a single person can take all this to heart, it will not change the fact that there are people who don’t, and those are probably the people who’ll keep their jobs. This is very sad and I wish it weren’t so, but it was something I could not help thinking while reading all these humane, friendly, agreeable thoughts.

Well – all the more reason to nail it to the doors, then!

Thanks for reading my (really super long, sorry!) review,
Rosa


Berg, Maggie & Seeber, Barbara K.: The Slow Professor. Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Published by the University of Toronto Press in 2016. It has 128 pages & the ISBN is 978-1442645561.

Review: „Lingua Franca“ by William Thacker

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„[…] we make them feel valued so long as they don’t ask for better working conditions; and so long as they upload pictures on social media so that everyone thinks we’re a fun company.“

 

Author: William Thacker
Title: Lingua Franca
ISBN: 1785079743
Number of Pages: 288
Obligatory Star Rating: 2,5/5

Miles Platting has founded a company  re-naming British towns after companies. While some townspeople are glad about the economic benefices of these kinds of sponsorship, others place more value on traditions and things like the integrity of language. Weird, funny and sad events ensue.

When I stumbled upon this book on Netgalley my initial reaction might have been something like „Oh, a book like this is always a nice idea!“ A book like this meaning: a book about language and meaning and reality and stuff.

Sadly, then, I discovered, that it really was just a book like this and I hardly got the feeling it was a book in its own right. While I liked the idea behind it, at times I wished Mr. Thacker had not decided to make a story out of it, because the story, the characters, the relationship dynamics were what sadly mostly bored me. Nothing seemed memorable, or, for the lack of a better word, original. Ever so often I found myself thinking “ah, so here’s also a character/scene like this”. Without even being able to define this more closely, I just way too often had the feeling of having read everything before. A first person narrator with this detached, concise, unadorned style. This kind of relationship with his (ex)wife who has this bubbling personality which is all too fitting the exact opposite of his; all of those ideological differences which cloud their relationship.

There were interesting passages, though, witty one-liners and other quote-worthy quotes, and, most importantly, ideas I want to think or write more about. As I said above – sometimes I wished this wasn’t a story, and that the author instead had decided to publish, I don’t know, a collection of loosely connected dialogues, aphorisms or scenes and thereby would have let me skip the boring parts in between.

While I could not get invested in the book at the beginning, as it got closer to the end it turned out to be more captivating, but I don’t know if the fact that the last ~ 50 pages finally grabbed my attention counts as a redeeming factor.

I actually feel sorry that I am writing so negatively. It was a well-written book and brought up some interesting thoughts, I just had expected more. In general, I think this book is more fun to talk about than actually read.

All in all I would describe it as a sometimes tiresome but still worthwhile reading experience. The lack of originality and connectability with stories and characters is made up for by the ideas behind it. There were some cute and witty scenes and phrases, so I did not just sit there stony-faced and bored. And, after all – it’s a pretty short book. Arriving at this state of having read instead of reading will not take long and then you are able to think and talk about it.

❤️, Rosa.

Review: „There Is Nothing Strange“ by Susan Pepper Robbins

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„Hope is really, Laura says, an assertion of the self against the universe. She does not sound exactly like the self-help gurus on TV and radio, but not altogether different either. Great effort creates hope, the key ingredient to miracles. We can be happy, if, and only if, we kill ourselves trying. Laura’s got it figured.“

 

Title: There Is Nothing Strange
Author: Susan Pepper Robbins
Number of Pages: 180
Obligatory Star Rating: 4/5

 

What a trainwreck of a book, and I mean this in the best of all possible senses. Everything is really fucked up and really enjoyable to read.

The book starts with a wedding: Laura is marrying Jeremy. Their best friend, Henry, is in love with Laura, too. And he makes it casually and confidently clear that he merely considers Jeremy to be her first husband, while he himself will be the final and right one. With a beginning like this, can it get any worse? It obviously can and the reader can spend the rest of this short book seeing all kinds of things unravel and go wrong – and, maybe, ultimately go right, but in all the wrong ways.

While there is a consistently gloomy and slightly threatening undertone, the book was an immense joy to read. I was driven on by curiosity and the question “what the fuck could happen now?” and could hardly put the book down. The above mentioned triad of Jeremy/Laura/Henry is not the only unhealthy and weird relationship and one can’t look away when secrets of the past get revealed in a tone between poetry and resignation.

Beside providing shock effects and feelings of uneasiness, the book delights with a wonderful writing style. Susan Pepper Robbins can do both beautiful nature descriptions and surprising and absurd similes.

All in all, I highly recommend this book!

❤️, Rosa