If you're looking for literary fiction that has the pace and tension of page-turner fiction, you couldn't do better than this novel, whose selection aIf you're looking for literary fiction that has the pace and tension of page-turner fiction, you couldn't do better than this novel, whose selection as a National Book Award finalist is well deserved.
I'm not normally drawn to post-apocalyptic novels, but this one worked so well for me. In Station Eleven, the story moves back and forth between the time before a worldwide flu pandemic that destroys most of humanity and the time that came afterward.
In the years after the devastation, people settle into scattered communities, living without electricity, cell phones, tap water, sanitary systems or any of the other conveniences of modern life. Circulating among them in the upper Midwest is the Traveling Symphony, a group of artists who do shows of classical music and Shakespeare, whose works have become a default because the survivors in this world still associate him with the excellence of a past age.
The lead actress in the troupe is Kirsten Raymonde, whom we first meet as a child actor on stage in Toronto just before the epidemic strikes, when an early victim, the famous actor Arthur Leander, collapses before the audience and dies.
Arthur has had and lost three wives, and longs to see his young son, now living in Israel with wife No. 2. Wife No. 1, in the meantime, has become a highly traveled shipping executive and is in Malaysia at the time the flu sweeps across the landscape. She also works away on a graphic novel about a sea-soaked world far from Earth called Station Eleven.
The Traveling Symphony must be wary as it moves from town to town, because there are still ruffians in the wilderness, and as the story develops, a more dangerous threat from a religious cult run by a man known only as the Prophet, who feels his band has been chosen by God to survive because he is the light and all else is darkness.
This plot line drives the post-apocalyptic plot forward to a tense, dramatic conclusion, but it also serves to link together threads from the pre-apocalyptic world, because various people and their belongings end up forming important links for many of the main characters.
The flashbacks to the pre-flu people and their lives never seem like a distraction in Mandel's hands, and she is equally skilled at probing the subtleties of relationships and modern life on the one hand, and creating a completely believable vision of a post-mechanical survivor world on the other.
This book is just so, so good. One of my rare five stars....more
Conclusion No. 1: Harriet Lane is an excellent writer, with a gift for description and dialogue.
Conclusion No. 2: Her technique of going back and fortConclusion No. 1: Harriet Lane is an excellent writer, with a gift for description and dialogue.
Conclusion No. 2: Her technique of going back and forth between Nina (the villain) and Emma (the victim) was effective and often showed the subtle ways in which Emma misinterpreted what she was feeling and seeing in her new "friend."
Conclusion No. 3: As with another recent book I reviewed (You Deserve Nothing), this novel of outsized revenge for a vague childhood injustice never gave me the least insight into why Nina was so determined to terrorize Emma. She remained as opaque and amoral in the end as in the beginning. It wasn't simply a matter of her being evil, but of her being inexplicably evil.
And of course (and this gives nothing away), I'm wired not to like anything involving threats to children, but I suspect that's exactly why Lane plotted this as she did.
Was the ending worth the slow, torturous buildup? I think not....more
OK, science fiction fans, I need some help -- and to do it, I'm going to have to issue my second SPOILER ALERT in a week.
I haven't read science ficti OK, science fiction fans, I need some help -- and to do it, I'm going to have to issue my second SPOILER ALERT in a week.
I haven't read science fiction for years, probably not since the Dune books, but I picked up John Scalzi's Redshirts because of a very sweet essay I saw on his blog about a woman who had been his surrogate grandmother.
Redshirts tracks a group of characters on the starship Intrepid, which is exploring new universes and always running into trouble, and if that reminds you of certain TV series, that's no accident. As it turns out, the key plot element in this book is that the crew on the Intrepid discover that they are actually characters in a badly written TV series from hundreds of years before. And badly written in their case means they are likely to die soon, since none of them is a star.
They figure out a clever way to deal with this problem, but here is my quandary on how to rate this novel.
The dialogue among the crew members is pitched at about a junior high level, with unrealistic remarks and bad jokes and sweaty sexual references fouling up most exchanges. But at the end of the book, when the main Intrepid story is over, Scalzi has some codas, and they are generally better written and more adult in tone.
So my question is, was Scalzi deliberately writing the front part of the book with cheesy dialogue and locker room humor to reflect the fact that his protagonists are supposed to be in a bad TV show, or is that more consistent with all of his science fiction writing?
If he was spoofing is own genre, then I would probably bump this up a star. If he was writing the way he usually does, I will take it down a star. But I don't want to have to read an entire other Scalzi book to find out, so someone please -- HELP!...more
In this fascinating memoir/science book/political call to action, neuroscientist Carl Hart tells his story of growing up in a poor part of Miami withIn this fascinating memoir/science book/political call to action, neuroscientist Carl Hart tells his story of growing up in a poor part of Miami with a father and mother who split up early and friends who later lapsed into the drug trade and other dead end lives.
He originally thought he might become a youth counselor, but his own experiences with drugs and the impact he thought they were making on his hometown led him into scientific research, often the lone black in the labs he worked in.
Over the years, he developed a number of experiments that led him to his strong belief that drugs are not the reason America's African American communities have been devastated, but the poverty and discrimination and lack of education that creates conditions that are ripe for people to turn to drugs for solace or profit.
His lab experiments have shown that hard core cocaine and meth users will choose monetary payments over the chance to use their drug of choice much of the time, and it has led him to the belief that drugs are not addictive for most people, or at least not to the extent that people can't move away from them if given the right incentives.
He doesn't favor legalizing drugs, he says, but rather switching to a system like Portugal's, where most drug arrests are treated as misdemeanors and committees decide on treatment or light imprisonment. The one flaw in this book, I thought, was that he never explained how that approach would get rid of the profiteering and related killings that go with the illicit drug trade.
There's a part of me that feels awful to give just two stars to a writer as skilled as Maksik, but for all my admiration for his skills at dialogue an There's a part of me that feels awful to give just two stars to a writer as skilled as Maksik, but for all my admiration for his skills at dialogue and characters and putting you in the hothouse environment of an international school in Paris, I could not get past the resounding moral void at the center of the novel.
And so I guess I need to issue a SPOILER ALERT on this one to do my feelings justice.
Will Silver is a teacher at a high school that attracts the children of the wealthy and the diplomatic corps in Paris, and he is the kind of inspirational teacher you'd recognize from Dead Poet's Society -- and in fact, the classroom scenes in which Silver challenges his students to explore what literature says and what it means to them are the best parts of this book.
But what drives this depressing plot is the fact that Silver decides to begin an affair with one of his students, and it is never clear why he has done this (or why he mysteriously left his wife after his parents died) or what he really feels about this young woman and his own future.
His action results in an inevitable tragedy, and his seemingly charmed existence as the teacher every student looked up to is abruptly ended as he ignominiously leaves the school in disgrace.
Not only did I get no sense of why Silver abused his trust to begin this sexual relationship, but I could not connect this man with the one who challenged his students to be their authentic selves.
In the end, this book, for all its fluency and even sparkling writing, never explained the core of its main character.
I didn't need a feel good ending. I just needed one I could understand....more
Another in my series of neglected classics, this tells the story of a boy's rude coming of age at the end of World War II in Jerusalem.
Felix has been Another in my series of neglected classics, this tells the story of a boy's rude coming of age at the end of World War II in Jerusalem.
Felix has been orphaned by the death of his British mother of typhoid in Baghdad, and after neighbors care for him a while, he is shipped off to live with his father's adopted sister, Miss Bohun, in Jerusalem.
Felix is naive and desperate for love and acceptance, and much of School for Love explores his shifting allegiances as he tries to support one person or another in the byzantine household run by his aunt. He does grow up, not all too happily, in the process, and even though the book is filled with several strong characters, the fulcrum is Miss Bohun, who is either a malevolent manipulator or a lonely woman trying to do her best in an uncertain world, or maybe a bit of both.
When Felix arrives, there is a running battle between Miss Bohun and Frau Leszno, a Polish woman who had occupied the house before but somehow has now become a servant for Miss Bohun. Upstairs is the reclusive Mr. Jewel, an aging pensioner, and downstairs are the frau's handsome son Nikky, who claims to be a count, and a Romanian servant, Maria.
Miss Bohun scrimps at all levels -- on food, on heat, and on compassion, even though she wants to appear to be the head of a happy family. She also spends much of her time running a religious cult called The Ever Readies, a reference to their apocalyptic views.
Into this already contentious scene comes a young pregnant widow, Mrs. Ellis, whom Felix is immediately smitten by, and who shows very little respect for Miss Bohun. It appears the landlady has agreed to let Mrs. Ellis take over the whole house once her baby comes, but as the book teaches us, one can never be too sure when it comes to Miss Bohun's promises.
The story culminates with Felix's preparation for returning to England along with other refugees and the dramatic events that affect the household.
What this novel really does is show how our relationships, our need for respect, acceptance and love, and our often unpredictably fluid small societies can dominate our lives in the midst of major changes in the world. It also raises unanswered questions about what true evil is, and whether a combination of loneliness and narcissism can almost amount to the same thing.
I'm encouraged by this to explore more of her books....more
This is yet another in my series of neglected classics, and I would most certainly have given this five stars except for one bothersome aspect, whichThis is yet another in my series of neglected classics, and I would most certainly have given this five stars except for one bothersome aspect, which I'll get to in a minute.
William Stoner is born on a hardscrabble farm in Missouri to parents who rarely speak and never show affection. It is therefore a minor miracle that his father urges him to go to the University of Missouri, ostensibly to study agriculture.
And so Stoner does, and then, after encountering a memorably sardonic English instructor, he realizes that he has a mysterious passion within him: to learn literature and to teach it.
Thus begins Stoner's odyssey through a long career at the university. We are told at the beginning of the book that he was little remembered in the decades after his death, was never famous or acclaimed, and in that respect, he is like most of us (writing history articles, I have also learned how many truly famous people from the past are soon virtually forgotten).
How do you then make a classic and unforgettable novel out of the career of an undistinguished English professor at a middling state school? You bring out the drama inherent in his life, as in everyone's life.
In Stoner's case, it comes in his truly difficult marriage; a later love; and a bitter professional rivalry that dominates much of his time on the faculty. And this is where my one qualm with Stoner rests. The portrait painted by Williams of Stoner's wife Edith is so unrelentingly negative that it almost overrides some equally disturbing questions, such as why, after caring lovingly for his daughter in her first years of life, he nearly loses all relations with her after her mother intervenes to break up their father-daughter intimacy. The daughter, too, is deeply troubled when she becomes a young woman, and Stoner accepts her fate in a way that is hard to understand by today's standards (I'd be more specific, but don't want to give a spoiler alert).
Because Williams does such a superb job creating most of his primary characters, and particularly the men, it's unfortunate that Stoner's wife and daughter are such bitter or sad counterpoints to Stoner's own integrity and passion for his students and his teaching.
By contrast, the long running battle between Stoner and a brilliant but bitter professor named Hollis Lomax is vividly portrayed. The drama of the feud's beginning, in which Lomax, who is physically disabled, champions the cause of a graduate student who is also disabled and who is clearly determined to progress through life using verbal pyrotechnics, without doing any of the necessary work to learn his craft (a true bullshit artist, though Stoner would never use such a crude term), and Stoner's staunch opposition to such chicanery, is one of the most compelling feuds I've ever come across.
Through it all, Williams uses a formal, almost academic style that fits Stoner's persona yet never becomes didactic.
One of my favorite passages, when Stoner is reflecting on the love he has found later in his life, shows that style:
"In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart."
It is that writing and the full portrait of a quiet, decent man who made major mistakes in his life, but burned with a deep and often unrequited passion, that makes this such a classic. I just wish I could have understood better the mental illness of his wife and the dispirited despair of his daughter.
This is, hands down, one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read, on a topic of overwhelming importance to the stability and sanity of our natio This is, hands down, one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read, on a topic of overwhelming importance to the stability and sanity of our nation.
Despite a drop in the overall homicide rate from the bad old days of the 90s, the murder rate among African American men continues to be substantially higher than for any other group. In "Ghettoside," former LA Times crime reporter Jill Leovy not only takes a close look at one of those homicides and the men who investigated it, but just as importantly, she takes a scalpel to the whole notion that the problem is just a matter of dysfunctional family structures or overly aggressive policing.
In fact, she argues, the real problem with the way we view and react to black male homicides is that our inner city police forces are overly aggressive at rousting and arresting young men for minor crimes, or just for standing on the street, but are not nearly aggressive enough at investigating homicides.
Are reluctant witnesses a big part of the problem? Of course, and it would be no different if white people were living in a community where they or their loved ones were threatened with harm if they were to snitch.
The lack of vigorous enforcement of homicide, she says, actually makes it more possible for witnesses to be intimidated and for shootings to keep occurring, and police agencies like the one she writes about in Los Angeles are much more fixated on "preventive" policing that often amounts to saturating neighborhoods with patrol cars than with putting resources into homicide investigations.
The human part of this compelling story revolves around homicide detective John Skaggs, who combines a peculiarly Californian mixture of surfer dude athleticism with an unrelenting, action oriented method of investigating homicides. The death it focuses on is that of Bryant Tennelle, the young son of another LA homicide detective, who is gunned own because he was wearing a hat that someone believes put him in a gang, even though he wasn't a gang member at all.
Working ceaselessly on the case, Skaggs and his partners were able to find witnesses who would talk (even though two of them fled before the trial was actually held) and physical evidence that tied a particular gun to the crime.
What also leaps off nearly every page is the grief, anger and agony of black families who have lost young men. They become Leovy's truest innocent victims of this national epidemic.