This Week's Reads

My Sister's Keeper

By Jodi Picoult (Atria, $25) For as potentially maudlin a subject as Jodi Picoult has chosen for her 11th novel, she at least deserves credit for keeping the story on track. Thirteen-year-old Anna was born for the specific purpose of providing her very ill older sister, Kate, with whatever spare parts she might need. Leukocytes, bone marrow, various organs—Kate ends up needing a lot. But as the novel begins, Anna has put her foot down and hired a lawyer to emancipate her from her duties. Now things get interesting—although the ethics debate over allogeneic sibling donors doesn't develop much. Picoult rotates narrators with each chapter, with different typefaces to indicate different characters—an annoying device that only emphasizes how maddeningly similar her characters are. Although mature for her age, Anna's still a very young teenager, yet her observations, quick wit, and cynicism too often feel like a father's rather than her own. Even her older brother, Jesse, a burgeoning fire starter and fuck-off skateboarder, thinks and speaks in clever—and sometimes cringe-worthy—poetry. On balance, everyone is so introspective, well spoken, and astute that the hefty Keeper story often seems like a TV movie of the week. After this easy, engaging read, you'll probably want to send someone a Hallmark card. Anna's relationship with her smarmy lawyer and his relationship with her court-appointed advocate provide some entertaining liaisons; Picoult has a gift for hiding small plot turns and her matter-of-fact medical explanations provide a sturdy backbone for the often mushy meat of her story. Most often writing in the voice of Anna's mother, Picoult faces the camera, in effect, to directly address the reader and give a reprieve from melodrama. One wishes Picoult had taken these interruptions as a starting point, rather than mere punctuation. LAURA CASSIDY Jodi Picoult will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., May 14; at Parkplace Books (348 Parkplace Center, Kirkland, 425-828-6546), 2 p.m. Mon., May 15; and at Third Place Books, 6 p.m. Mon., May 15. We Need to Talk About Kevin

By Lionel Shriver (Perennial, $13.95) A well-meaning but frustrated mother reads Robin Hood to her troubled son during a brief spell when illness calms his surliness and malice. A few years later, he kills nine people with a crossbow in the gymnasium of his suburban New Jersey high school. Who's to blame—the parent or the child? There are no easy answers in this important 2003 novel (new in paper), which, alongside the Oscar-winning Michael Moore documentary and Gus Van Sant's Elephant, belongs to the realm of what might be called Columbine Art. In fact, in her notes, e-mails, and letters to an absent husband, Eva directly references Columbine and all the other schoolyard slayings so familiar from CNN. With an eye toward the television, she also grouses about the 2000 electoral debacle in Florida and rails against an American culture where nobody seems to take responsibility for their actions. Now in her 50s, with son Kevin in jail for his bloodbath (committed at age 15), the somewhat misanthropic Eva is consumed with regret—about having a kid, about complicating her career as a successful travel-guide writer, about having been a "cold" mother (the ultimate maternal sin). How much can a mother be held accountable for the acts of her offspring? How does nature vs. nurture determine moral judgment? As she recalls, Kevin rejected her breast at birth and stubbornly refused to be toilet trained; he was, from the beginning, like the demonic brat in The Omen—a nihilist in diapers. There is no prenatal "test for malice, for spiteful indifference, or for congenital meanness," Eva ruefully observes. After you wade through the not very interesting history of Eva's courtship and marriage (that prelapsarian bliss before kids), Talk becomes compelling with the gradual, inevitable momentum of Kevin's rage and his parents' obliviousness to it. Talk is essentially the taboo tale of a mother who never really loved her son, then struggles to disavow his evil acts. If guilt is second nature to all mothers, here is the mother of all maternal guilt trips. A contributor to The Wall Street Journal and a prolific novelist, author Lionel Shriver is keen on moral accountability, and here she critiques America's crybaby culture (it's my mom's fault, my school's fault, etc.). As she wrote two years ago in the Journal about Columbine copycats, "To take from these deadly teenage temper tantrums any grandiose 'lessons' is to elevate small, mean fits of spite to a mythic status they do not deserve." Shriver does not specifically blame Eva's (suspect) mothering for Kevin's behavior nor suggest that society made him a monster. Instead, Kevin's resentment seems to work the other way: His own hatred made him an unloved outcast; spite was apparently the cause, not the effect. In Eva's portrayal, he's a preening, superior sociopath, like Leopold and Loeb combined (hearing of a planned Miramax adaptation of his death spree, Kevin sneers, "Brad Pitt should play me"). Yet if flawed parents, like Eva, aren't responsible for their children, that makes the world a more frightening, inexplicable place than if they are. You can't say Talk ends on an uplifting note, since there are more bodies to be discovered, but there is something affirmative in Eva's final disposition toward her son. By imagining, if not foreseeing, the very worst in Kevin, Eva also prepares herself to accept the worst (maybe within herself as well). Her old regrets are transformed into something else—perhaps not forgiveness, yet perhaps something like love. BRIAN MILLER Lionel Shriver will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Mon., May 17; at University Book Store, 4 p.m. Tues., May 18; and at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., May 18. Candyfreak

By Steve Almond (Algonquin, $21.95)

We're all freaks for something when we're young. Most of us manage to shed our obsessive tendencies, so that video games or comic books don't run (or ruin) our adult lives. Some of us do not. Steve Almond, for example. While some drown their sorrows in drink, the author of Candyfreak seeks out candy bars when he's feeling down. Or up. Or any way at all. Almond's witty writing is almost as addictive as M&Ms, and it clearly emanates from a brain enrobed in chocolate. The unexplained disappearance of his favorite childhood candy bar, the Caravelle, sends him on a tour of regional candy manufacturers to find out how they're fending off the Big Three: Hershey's, Nestlé, and Mars. What follows is an illuminating tour of lesser-known brands like Haviland, creator of a chocolate mint that, according to Almond, "makes the York peppermint patty its bitch." Almond's enthusiasm is contagious as he pokes around the sugar-dusted annals of candy lore. Among his finds is the Vegetable Sandwich, a '20s relic consisting of chocolate-covered peas, carrots, and celery. Not unlike the Oldsmobile, the Caravelle simply fell victim to candy obsolescence—literally, tastes change. But Almond's heartening experience at Vermont's Lake Champlain Chocolates is Candyfreak's turning point, a sign that all may not be lost for small-time manufacturers. Here Almond meets "chocolate engineer" Dave Bolton, who insists on premium Belgian chocolate and meticulously crafted fillings. Almond's discovery of this candy perfectionist validates his obsession and—for at least some sweet-toothed readers, myself included—Candyfreak itself. NEAL SCHINDLER Steve Almond will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 6 p.m. Mon., May 17; and at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Tues., May 18. Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine

By David Shields (Simon & Schuster, $23) If it's a mystery to you why otherwise intelligent people waste their time watching professional sports rather than, say, listening to NPR, consider what Kirkus Reviews calls a "thinking person's collection of sports essays." (The implication is that anything sports-related by default does not involve thinking.) To me, that description conjures up notions of tweedy, pipe-smoking George Will–style pontification on the M's or Sonics. Local writer David Shields, by contrast, is down with us real sports fans. Instead of seeking pseudo-intellectual justifications for his jockish passions, he writes with a thrilling, performative élan that derives from sports itself. Lightning fast, surprising, and impolite, Shields retains something of the swagger he brought to his junior-high basketball game, a style his friends found disreputable and "vaguely Negro." His athletic skill at the time brought him—an otherwise awkward, stuttering Jewish kid—a grudging measure of popularity, at least until some real jocks shattered his left femur in a sadistic game called "Tackle the Guy With the Ball" (where I grew up, we called it "Smear the Queer"). Thenceforth he would be like his hero Howard Cosell—words would be his weapons. Shields' autobiography flashes by in the prologue, touching on many of the themes that consume him in these 13 essays: the homosexual panic and self-loathing of the fan; the longing for redemption that will come with winning the Finals, the Cup, the Series; and the ever-present subtext of race. Shields, a UW English professor and erstwhile SW contributor, covered some of the same ground in his 1999 book, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (he also swipes some of that book's better one-liners). But where that earlier work was a shapeless slog, this one offers a smooth progression of tightly wound chapters that ring with an angry clarity (and Shields does always sound at least a little bit pissed off). Aside from a few dumb generalizations about "traditional Japanese culture" in the chapter on Ichiro (written when Ichiro was still in full God mode, before pitchers learned how to shut him down with fastballs close in on his hands), about the only thing that falls flat here is the tastefully generic pun of the title. I imagine it must be the addition of some tweedy, pipe-smoking Simon & Schuster editor. Someone who probably calls Shields "a thinking person's sportswriter." DAVID STOESZ David Shields will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 8 p.m. Mon., May 17; at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Thurs., May 20; and at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Mon., May 24. Love Monkey

By Kyle Smith (William Morrow, $23.95) Lord, what hath chick lit wrought? Must we insensitive louts roust ourselves from the couch to pour out our supposed insecurities about dating, love, and fashion to other guys who will pre­sumably pore through these pages and debate our romantic follies over frou-frou martinis after work? People magazine editor Kyle Smith thinks so, or at least he sees a strategic marketing opportunity to try to Americanize a genre that, in Britain, only Nick Hornby has been able to pull off for men. The result, Love Monkey, can't hold a candle to About a Boy or High Fidelity, although that probably won't stop it from being made into a movie. I can just see Jason Biggs playing bumbling N.Y.C. journalist Tom Farrell as he dates his way through half the women of Manhattan. Laugh as Tom makes a fool of himself for Leisl. Groan as he pines for Julia. Wince as he misunderstands the friendship of gal-pal Bran. Cheer as he works his way up the tabloid career ladder. Take inspiration as he goes on a diet to lose 40 pounds . . . wait a minute, what the hell are we talking about here? Men don't act like this. Tom is fitfully funny—he coaches himself on a date, "Play Understanding Guy. Try to cover up Cardiac Arrest Guy underneath"—but his diary entries amount to the same fits, the same lists, the same lyrics, the same e-mail messages, the same tired pop-cultural schtick of references and flippancies that we're already weary of. While Hornby's overgrown man-boys' lists and rants get to the emotional pith underneath, Smith's Cardiac Arrest Guy turns out to be as interesting as, well, Jason Biggs. The 32-year-old Tom is no meterosexual, no ruthless newsroom cad; he's just a collection of quips and quotes and clichés—a target in search of a demographic that doesn't exist: sensitive, insecure nice guys of the sort who would read a debut novel like this. When 9/11 arrives, late in the novel, Tom gains no more substance as a witness to tragedy. As it turns out, author Smith, a Yalie and veteran of the first Gulf War, is in town the same week as Daniel Jones, editor of The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom (Third Place, 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 14), whose contributors include Anthony Swofford. Smith apparently has a Jarhead-like war memoir in the works, and I'd much rather read about those real battle experiences—like his 9/11 memories, which are well-observed but in the wrong book—than about his contrived hero. B.R.M.

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