Category Archives: Fiction

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

It must be really fun to write dystopian fiction. You can create worlds that are limited only by your imagination and what the human body can realistically endure. I tend to read realistic fiction, but the few times I’ve ventured into dystopian territory, I have been impressed by the creativity and originality in those works. (The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker comes to mind.)

Station Eleven falls into this category. Emily St. John Mandel’s deeply moving novel takes place fifteen years after a pandemic, the Georgia Flu, has claimed over 99% of the world’s population. All of the technology that defined the modern age – electricity, transportation by car and plane, the Internet, computers, medicine, etc. – is gone. Geographic borders have become meaningless, as people now live in very small communities, often congregating in formerly public spaces like Walmarts, airports, and restaurants. Other than traveling by foot from place to place, there is no way of knowing who else – if anyone – is still around.

Station Eleven follows a few different characters, relating their pre- and post-flu lives. The pre-flu plot centers around Arthur, an aging actor performing King Lear in a Toronto theater just as the flu is racing through America. He dies of a heart attack while on the stage. Among those who are affected by his death are Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to revive him; Kristen, a child actress performing with him; Clark, his best friend; Miranda, his ex-wife; and Elizabeth, another ex-wife with whom he had a son, Tyler. Station Eleven jumps around among these characters’ lives, ultimately following where they were when the flu hit, how they managed to survive it (or not), and where they are now, fifteen years later. Ultimately, most of them cross paths again in the new world.

Kristen ends up in a traveling theater troupe who roams from town to town through what was once the Midwest, bringing a bit of beauty to the desolation in the form of Shakespeare and classical music. Mandel does not spend time talking about how the citizens of the new world survive day to day (how did they get water? what did they do all day? how did they get new clothes? how did they survive winters living in airports with no heat?). Instead, she focuses more on the psychological impact of the flu and its destruction of culture and connection. That’s why the troupe is so important; it’s a symbol of how desperate both the performers and the audience were for lovely, fragile humanity - which they had lost in a weekend. There is a pervasive feeling of dread and danger throughout the book too, thanks to the vigilante, wild West atmosphere that replaced our ordered, law-enforcing society.

I found Station Eleven to be a thought-provoking, moving book. It took me forever to read – like 4 weeks – because I just couldn’t process too much of it at one time. I absorbed it in small chunks because it kind of exhausted me. But I know people who read it in a weekend, so don’t let that deter you.

There is one incredibly powerful image that comes to mind whenever I think about Station Eleven. When the world had finally grasped the potency of the flu, people started quarantining buildings and shutting people out in an attempt to keep the flu away. Three hundred stranded passengers in a Michigan airport, surrounded by empty planes, watched a final plane land on the runway… and just sit there, silently. No one ever emerged from the sealed plane. Ever. Who decided that those people needed to stay on the plane to protect the uninfected? Who was on the plane? How swift were their deaths? That plane just haunted me.

Station Eleven isn’t a perfect book – there are a lot of loose ends and much that goes unexplained – but I think it was incredibly impressive nonetheless. It has made me look differently at how we live our modern lives and question what’s really important and what would survive if we all disappeared.

HOLES by Louis Sachar

Our last Mother-Daughter book club read was Holes by Louis Sachar.

Holes is a weird, dark book. It takes place at a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert, where delinquent boys are sent as punishment for their crimes. While at Camp Green Lake, the boys are required to spend their days digging holes – circular in shape and 5 feet deep and in circumference – in a dried up lake bed. They aren’t told why; they are just told to dig. All day, every day.

Stanley Yelnats has been sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn’t commit – stealing a famous baseball player’s sneakers which had been donated to benefit a homeless shelter. Stanley was convicted of stealing the shoes, and arrives at Camp Green Lake resigned to serve his time there. He’s an overweight, out of shape, unpopular boy, but after his arrival at Green Lake, he is eventually accepted by the other boys there and starts to fit in. He gets in better shape from the unending digging, and even starts teaching one of his fellow campmates how to read. But Stanley carries with him a curse that was delivered on his family a few generations before, and he believes it is the Yelnats’ fate to fail, despite his increasing self-confidence.

The boys in Stanley’s group figure out that they are digging the holes because the warden is trying to find something that is buried in the lake bed. When Stanley finds a lipstick case that is of great interest to the warden, the boys’ desire to find whatever else might be buried – and possibly put the endless digging to rest – only intensifies.

Holes reminded me of a fable. There are some elements of the fantastic, like lethal spotted lizards who are repelled by the smell of onions, as well as coincidences and plot twists that steer the book strongly off of the path of realistic fiction. And it’s a dark story, with some pretty awful authority figures and a lot of greed to go around. But it kept my attention, and it certainly kept my daughters’ attention. I was surprised by how high the girls in the book club rated it – most gave it a 9 or a 10. We had a good discussion about what they would do if they were in the boys’ shoes, and whether Camp Green Lake was worse than jail (everyone thought it was).

By the way, it had a happy ending.

Holes was an interesting, offbeat pick for middle grade readers.

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

I’m back.

My latest read was Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It is about the Lees, a family of five living in a small college town Ohio in the 70s. Marilyn and James are an interracial couple – he is Chinese-American and she is white – and they have three kids -Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. When the book opens, fifteen year-old Lydia has disappeared. We learn pretty quickly what happened to her – that’s not the mystery of the book. Instead, the story goes back and forth in time to reconstruct how the Lee family arrived at this crisis point.

The roots of each member’s discontent are deep. James carries the insecurity of being an outsider and is desperate for his children to integrate more successfully. Marilyn, who jettisoned dreams of a medical career when she married James and had kids, projects her stifled ambitions onto her daughter. Nathan is brilliant, but never wins his parents’ respect or attention, and Hannah is completely overlooked. Lydia, meanwhile, is miserable under her parents’ scrutiny, but can’t seem to stand up to them or express who she really is.

Ng teases out the history of the Lee family, building the narrative slowly until they each come into sharp relief just as Lydia disappears. This is a sad book, of course because of the loss of a child, but also because these characters are so needlessly disconnected. The grooves of dysfunction and secrecy have deepened over the years, leading ultimately to a tragedy that could have been prevented with some smoothing and filling in.

I liked Everything I Never Told You, though I was struck a few times that it might have been better as a novella or even a (long) short story. Ng is a lovely writer, and the prose flowed nicely. It was just too long for the story it sustained. Given how few characters there were, and how tight – almost claustrophobic – the setting, it could have been shorter. I got the gist of it long before the end and just wanted to see how it resolved.

I listened to Everything I Never Told You on audio, narrated by Cassandra Campbell. She is not my favorite narrator (I’ve listened to a few of her performances), as she reads slowly and enunciates a bit too much for my taste. But she also read with a great deal of pathos for the characters, which I appreciated. It was a slow, engrossing audio experience that immersed me in the story and got these characters under my skin.

One final thought: the cover. The text on the cover reminds me of the font that eye doctors use to test vision. (“Which is clearer? A or B?”). This seems fitting for this book, as the truth emerged from blur into clarity as time went on, both to the reader and to the Lees themselves.

BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea

Our February Mother-Daughter book club book was Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. It was a big hit with the girls.

Because of Mr. Terupt is about a fifth grade teacher, Mr. Terupt, and the effect he had on seven of his students one fateful year. The students are a diverse lot – the class bully, the class clown, the brain, the withdrawn boy, the new girl from California, the outcast, and the bully’s sidekick. Over the course of the year, they each change – for the better – thanks to their teacher, who recognizes the good in them and gently coaxes it out.

Some of Mr. Terupt’s efforts were done unconsciously. He was hit by a snowball during recess about halfway through the book, and shockingly ends up in a coma. Yet even when he was in the hospital, he managed to bring the kids together and help resolve some of their problems, especially those that originated outside the classroom.

The girls in the book club really enjoyed the book. They liked the complexity of the characters, who faced difficult situations like the death of a sibling, very strict parents, and absent fathers. They liked Mr. Terupt. We even had a discussion about negligence, fault and causation, which reminded me of my torts class in law school. Some of the girls had read the sequel already – Mr. Terupt Falls Again – and my daughters have already downloaded it onto their Kindle (and book club was today). Definitely the mark of a good book! Recommended for the middle grade set.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

So I jumped on the bandwagon and read the Book of 2015, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s one of the recent crop of Psychological Thrillers Narrated by Women that may or may not achieve Gone Girl success. The Girl on the Train has three narrators: (1) Rachel, a depressed alcoholic who is divorced from Tom and rides the train to London every day past his house, where she used to live and where Tom now lives with (2) Anna, who has a toddler, is happily married to Tom, and enlists babysitting help from (3) Megan, Anna and Tom’s neighbor who is married to Scott and has a checkered past.

Rachel, who is obsessed with Tom and mourning the loss of her old life, sees Megan and Scott’s house every day and romanticizes their relationship, naming them Jason and Jess and creating personas for them that reflect the life she wishes she had. But one day, when she passes the house from the train, she sees Megan with another man. And a few days later, Megan has disappeared – on the same night that Rachel was in the neighborhood, so drunk that she can’t remember what she saw. Rachel is devastated by the demise of this perfect couple she has concocted, and ends up getting involved with the investigation. She goes to the police with what she knows, she tells Scott about Megan’s affair, and she even manages to interact with the man Megan had the affair with, all the while continuing her unwelcome intrusions into Tom and Anna’s life. In short, her already teetering life goes entirely off the tracks.

The Girl on the Train is told from Rachel, Anna and Megan’s perspective, and as the chapters go by, you realize that the three women are not as different as they might seem. They each have their own insecurities and complicated feelings about motherhood. They are involved with some of the same men. Their interior thoughts reveal ugliness and weaknesses that they try, often unsuccessfully, to hide from view.

I can’t reveal much more without giving away what happens in the book, but there is a twist toward the end that brings the women’s stories together and resolves the question of what happened to Megan. I was a little disappointed by the twist, because it ultimately wasn’t one that the reader could have reasonably figured out on his or her own. I prefer twists that were hinted at, even briefly, by the plots leading up to them, and I think Hawkins hid the ball on this one. But the ending was nonetheless pulse-quickening and mostly satisfying (though in retrospect there are a few key things that don’t hold up).

I think I liked the experience of reading The Girl on the Train more than I like the book now. I was kind of glad to finish it. I listened to it on audio, so it was quite an investment of time for a story that in retrospect is basically a thriller. But it was definitely entertaining and held my attention. The narrators’ voices were fantastic – sad, humiliated Rachel; confident, no-nonsense Anna; and wispy, melancholy Megan. I think they did a great job bringing these characters to life.

I’d like to give away my audio copy of The Girl on the Train to someone who wants to take a crazy ride with this book. If you’d like to win, leave me a comment here and I will pick a name on Friday, February 20.

SINGLE, CAREFREE, MELLOW by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow is a collection of stories about women, most of whom are in the process of deceiving the men they love. They are cheating on spouses; they are longing for other men they aren’t with; they are in search of something different. These women aren’t bad people. They are human – funny, flawed, loving – and feeling constrained by the roles they have found themselves in. I really enjoyed this collection of stories. Heiny’s characters are anything but single, carefree and mellow; they are deeply entrenched in relationships, highly introspective, and emotionally intense. My favorite story is called “That Dance You Do” and is about a mother planning her son’s 8th birthday party. It’s just perfect. I laughed out loud many times reading that story, just as I did throughout the whole book.

Single, Carefree, Mellow came out this past week, and Heiny has been getting a lot of attention. She has a story of her own to tell: her first story was published twenty years ago, when she was 24. She sent it to 30 magazines, only to be rejected by all of them, and finally sent it to The New Yorker, who accepted it. That story – “How To Give the Wrong Impression”- is included in Single, Carefree, Mellow, and is about a young woman whose romantic love for her male roommate is unrequited. After the success of that story, Heiny got married, had kids, and didn’t publish anything for 20 years, until this collection came out.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Q&A at Politics & Prose tonight between Heiny and her editor, Jenny Jackson, from Knopf. (I knew I would like her – she has edited Jennifer Close, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emily Mandel.)  It was a really interesting conversation, which I have tried to sum up here. Read this Q&A and I promise you will want to read the book.

Q: Tell me about the story “How To Give the Wrong Impression” and why there was such a long break after that one.

A: There was a girl in my building who told me about “the guy she lives with”. I asked her if he was her boyfriend or not, and the whole story unrolled from there like a rug. It’s as personal to me today as the day I wrote it. Of all of my protagonists, I am most like her.

After it was published, I wrote a lot of YA novels, then got met my husband, got married and had kids. That took everything out of me. I didn’t start writing again until my youngest was in first grade. Then the floodgates opened. I think the imagination is like a muscle – the more you write, the easier it gets.

Q. Most of your stories are about relationships and women chafing against marriage. Did you set out to write about love and infidelity?

A: Sex and relationships is what I like to read about, so it’s what I wanted to write about. In my collection, infidelity is really second to what I want to write about. The inspiration for the infidelity? My husband was a spy, a professional secret-keeper. I had to keep his job a secret and be careful about what I said. That colored my fiction.

Q: When women characters are unfaithful, there is often the opinion that they have to get their comeuppance and be punished for it. That is not the case here. Was that a conscious decision here, to buck convention?

A: No. I don’t like to write about the beginnings or ends of relationships. I don’t like to write about the day of reckoning. I would rather talk about the middle. I am interested in whether the infidelity will change the relationship or the people. I leave a lot up to the reader; I am not moralizing.

Q: Do you care if your readers dislike your characters?

A: I love my characters like I love my children. They are flawed but I love them anyway. I don’t care if my readers like the characters as long as they are enjoying the book.

Q: Let’s talk about the feminist aspect of the collection. These women are chafing against convention and are feeling circumscribed in their lives. A lot of the drama here happens in the kitchen, in the car, in the dining room. What drew you to the domestic sphere?

A: I am not a person who could write an international thriller – I don’t know much about politics or foreign policy. I get my news from Facebook. When you have kids, you enter a parallel universe of naps, playdates and logistics – a domestic microcosm. That’s where I see things happening.

Q: Maya appears in three of your stories. Why? Could you write a novel about her?

A: The Maya/Rhodes stories were hard to write because I like Rhodes so much. He deserves better than Maya. But things would happen to me and I’d see them happening to Maya. I don’t think I could do a whole novel about her because I feel such solidarity with Rhodes.

Q: “How To Give The Wrong Impression” was written 20 years ago, but it still holds up. Why do you think that’s true?

A: Unrequited love is always relatable. It is as old as jealousy.

Q: The story “That Dance You Do” is about a particularly horrible experience at a kid’s birthday party? Was this true to life? Is that your most autobiographical story?

A: This story was based on my son’s 8th birthday party. But it’s so boring to say that this is my most autobiographical story. There are a lot of true things throughout the book. I often put something true into a different context within the narrative.

Q: Short stories used to get a bad rap. Publishers were reluctant to put a lot of muscle behind them. Now, there is a real spark behind short stories. Why do you like writing stories?

A: To me, writing a novel is like being at a horrible monthlong family reunion. There is no escape, and you’re surrounded by the same people all the time. Writing a short story is like stopping at a bar and having one drink. You can minimize the damage.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise about being published?

A: It’s so fun! I was worried that I would lose the personal responses I got when I wrote short stories, but that hasn’t been the case. It has been wonderful.

Q: Tell us about the novel you are working on.

A: It is very different from my story collection. The narrator is a man, and he is married to an over-the-top extrovert. Is that type of person, who is fun and exciting to be with but doesn’t stop talking, a good choice for a life partner?

 

HER by Harriet Lane


There has been a recent mini-explosion in British psychological thrillers with unreliable female narrators, perhaps fueled by the incredible success of Gone Girl. And I have succumbed to their wily charms. I am in the middle of The Girl on the Train on audio, and just finished Her by Harriet Lane. Both are hot books this month – and in fact both were reviewed together yesterday in the Washington Post.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD. (I won’t ruin the surprise of the book, but I may share more than you want to know if you’re planning to read Her.)

I will divide my experience reading Her into two parts: the first 90 percent, and the last 10 percent.

The first 90 percent: I was hooked.

Her is about two women – Nina and Emma. They are the same age, but Nina has a 16 year-old daughter and is a successful artist, while Emma has a toddler and and a baby, and has left behind a career in television news to stay at home with her kids. Nina is cool and pulled-together, while Emma is exhausted and frazzled. They live in the same neighborhood, and when the book opens, Nina has just seen Emma for the first time in many years. We learn that Emma wronged Nina once, many years ago, and that Nina is still very angry, but we don’t know what Emma did. Emma doesn’t recognize Nina, and is therefore unsuspecting and open when Nina slowly starts to ingratiate herself into Emma’s life.

Lane sets up her story beautifully. Nina shrewdly constructs situations in which Emma will be worried and anxious, and Nina will come to the rescue. She returns Emma’s missing wallet. She finds Emma’s son, who has wandered away from the park, and takes him to the police station. She comes to the rescue as a babysitter when Emma’s other babysitter (who happens to be Nina’s daughter) cancels. Her is told from both women’s perspectives, alternating, so as Emma’s gratitude toward Nina grows alongside Nina’s parallel plotting and manipulation. Nina is always in a position of power and generosity, putting Emma into situations that make her feel self-conscious and helpless but grateful.

I LOVE Lane’s writing. Love it. The little details she peppers in that beautifully convey motherhood and women’s friendship. Her observations about modern life: “Looking through Emma’s collection, I’m struck by how little these pictures have in common with the photographs people take now, the casual why-not off-the-cuff snaps of people yawning or laughing or mucking around. Emma’s parents saved their film for shots that stood a good chance and that mattered. The times when the light was right and people were still and formal, conscious of the moment, already colluding in its artifice.” I couldn’t get enough of Her. I couldn’t wait to finish and find out what Emma had done that deserved Nina’s cruel treatment and how she would eventually uncover Nina’s true motives.

The last 10 percent: Extreme disappointment.

At the end, Lane finally reveals why Nina was so angry at Emma, and it was a major letdown. I found it totally implausible that Emma’s actions, which were basically unwitting, would have set Nina off so many years later. I wonder if Lane got to the end of her story, realized she had no idea what had propelled it, and found a hasty candidate in a thin – borderline laughable – motive.

Or maybe it was intentional. At one point toward the end, Nina is thinking about a thriller that another character is reading: “I don’t say that I’ve read it and enjoyed it, though I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are: nothing like life, which – it seems to me – turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings, or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” Perhaps that was Lane’s point – Nina didn’t need a huge, dramatic transgression to justify her actions; a simple disappointment was enough. I’d love to know.

Overall, I was so disappointed by the ending of Her that I almost regretted reading it, but in the end, Lane’s beautiful writing justified the hours I spent on it.