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.

Introducing… Readerly Magazine

For the last few years, I have worked on a publication called Bloggers Recommend. I manage its Facebook page and have written a number of reviews of new releases and audiobooks over the years.

Readerly_FB2Bloggers Recommend has just been rebranded as Readerly Magazine. Readerly is a “thrice-monthly email magazine featuring articles, interviews, and new release book picks from a community of dedicated readers”. In other words, it’s a magazine about books by people who love them.

Please give Readerly a look and subscribe if you’d like more book-related news in your inbox every month!

Also, I have an article in the current issue of Readerly about Three Depressing Books That Are Totally Worth It. Click through to see what they are…

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.

GIRL ON THE TRAIN Audiobook Giveaway

Congrats to the winner of the audiobook of Girl on the Train – Lauren Thomson! (She’s also known as the person who designed this blog.) Enjoy!

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.