When I first read the review for this book in Entertainment Weekly, I thought to myself, “Do I really want to read another post-apocalyptic novel?” OvWhen I first read the review for this book in Entertainment Weekly, I thought to myself, “Do I really want to read another post-apocalyptic novel?” Over the last several years, I’ve experienced the world ending by plague, zombies, some sort of electronic pulse, and an alien invasion or two. Though my initial response was, “Maybe not,” I’m glad that I picked this book off the bestseller shelf at my local library. It IS a novel about the end of the world as we know it, but it’s also about life, art, the connections between people, and the vagaries of chance.
There are many echoes of Stephen King’s The Stand here—a very contagious flu-like disease that kills almost 98% of the population, a story that flits between a series of characters that you suspect/know will connect later on, and a messianic figure who preys on the survivors of this epidemic. However, it’s the differences that really make this novel sing. To be clear, I really enjoyed The Stand but it was all about “after” and about “plot”—the chain of events that lead a group of disparate characters to an epic showdown.
In Station Eleven, the arrival of an incredibly virulent version of the flu is the turning point in the lives of most of the characters—so much so, that survivors see time in terms of the years since the epidemic. However, one of the main characters of the book dies hours before the flu hits (and I’m not giving anything away because it happens on the first page). Arthur Leander, a 51-year-old Hollywood actor is playing Lear on a Toronto stage when in the middle of the mad scene, he clutches his chest and goes down. An EMT in training sitting in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, runs to the stage to attempt to resuscitate Arthur but is unsuccessful. As the paramedics arrive, Jeevan ends up comforting a young child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, who was hired to play one of the daughters Lear hallucinates in the scene.
The story proceeds from this event, tragic at that moment, but soon to be eclipsed by the nightmare to come, but also begins to jump around. We see 20 years in the future—when Kirsten is part of a troupe of traveling actors and musicians that tours a route along the great lakes—moving from outpost to outpost in this new world. The troupe, called the Traveling Symphony, puts on Shakespeare plays and classical concerts because, as is written on their horse-drawn wagon, survival is insufficient. As in Shakespeare’s time, death is everywhere—from marauders on the road to minor illnesses and injuries made major by the lack of antibiotics and other medicines. However, we also move back in time—following characters, some who make it through the flu and some who don’t—but who all connect back to Arthur Leander. There are his ex-wives, Miranda and Elizabeth; there’s Clark, a friend from Arthur’s early days as an aspiring actor in Toronto; and even Jeevan, who had prior connections to Arthur before that night in the theatre.
If you want a tightly plotted novel like The Stand (or more recently, The Passage) with a clear moment of reckoning, this is not the book for you. There is tension and danger and conflict but Mandel is more interested in exploring the things that connect us and what remains after a lot of the trappings of civilization are peeled back. There’s a lot to ponder in this novel and though it provokes a bit of existential angst (what I now call the Oryx and Crake effect), it’s one of the more optimistic end-of-world texts I’ve read. ...more
I really liked this novel set in early 20th Century New York against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the rise of Coney Island. It telI really liked this novel set in early 20th Century New York against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the rise of Coney Island. It tells the story of two interesting individuals. The first is Coralie Sardie, the daughter of “The Professor,” the owner of a Coney Island freak show entitled “The Museum of Ordinary Things.” Because of a small physical deformity, Coralie has been trained by her father to become an excellent swimmer so that she can appear as the “Mermaid” in her father’s show. The second is Eddie Cohen, a young Jewish man who emigrated from Russia with his father but has left both his family and religion behind to become a photographer. It’s the murder of a young woman that brings them together but the novel spends a lot of time getting them to that point and that’s not a bad thing at all. Hoffman is good at creating engaging stories with just a touch of magical realism (but not in a twee way . . . ) and this novel was no exception...more
Having just finished a female coming-of-age novel set in the early 1930’s, it’s only appropriate that I read a male coming-of-age novel set in the earHaving just finished a female coming-of-age novel set in the early 1930’s, it’s only appropriate that I read a male coming-of-age novel set in the early 1990’s. Hairstyles of the Dammed has a totally different soundtrack, but many of the themes—identity, rebellion, and sexuality are present—just in a slightly different mix. This novel focuses on a year in the life of Brian, who lives on the South Side of Chicago, goes to an all-boys Catholic school, and is love with his best friend, Gretchen, a punk rock girl with anger issues. There’s a lot of music, angst, sexual awkwardness, vandalism, drama, and some drug use in these bite-sized chapters but through them, we get the story of one boy’s search for who he wants to be and who he wants to be with.
For those who still have PTSD from high school (and don’t we all), this might stir up bad memories but that’s a testament to how “real” these characters feel in a time capsule from 1991. Read it and feel both relief and regret that you’re now an adult. ...more
I loved Wolitzer’s earlier book, The Interestings, and in some ways this young adult novel seems like an offshoot thematically. Instead of a summer caI loved Wolitzer’s earlier book, The Interestings, and in some ways this young adult novel seems like an offshoot thematically. Instead of a summer camp in upstate New York, the characters in Belzhar are at The Wooden Barn, a “therapeutic boarding school” for teens in Vermont. This is basically Jam Gallahue’s story; she was sent to this school because she has been mourning the death of her British exchange student boyfriend for too long. Jam is chosen to be part of a special topics class on Sylvia Plath (an odd choice, I have to say, considering the locale) taught by Mrs. Quenell, a teacher nearing retirement and her classmates are a group of misfit toys—all dealing with some trauma from the past.
This is where the book turns away from the real world of The Interestings into something else altogether because Mrs. Quennel gives all her students a journal and asks them to write in it each week. However, when they do, strange things happen; they go to a time BEFORE whatever trauma they encountered. For example, Jam gets to hang with her boyfriend, Reeve. However, as one might expect, this opportunity comes at a price.
Wolitzer makes a couple plot decisions that I don’t love, but this novel is a good meditation on grief and moving on and on the power of great literature. ...more
This is the first fiction I’ve read by Jeannette Walls, whose bestselling book, The Glass Castle, prompted my book club to issue the edict—no books abThis is the first fiction I’ve read by Jeannette Walls, whose bestselling book, The Glass Castle, prompted my book club to issue the edict—no books about kids in jeopardy for hundreds of pages. They read The Glass Castle a few months before I joined and I haven’t yet read it; however, I did read Half Broke Horses, which tells the true but somewhat fictionalized story of Walls’ maternal grandmother—setting up the crazy that is Wall’s first memoir.
Though this is a novel, The Silver Star covers some familiar territory. Set in 1970, the story is narrated by Bean (Jean) Holliday and she and her older sister, Liz, are dealing with a mother who is entertaining at best but erratic and self-absorbed at worst. They have moved a lot over the years since every town has something their mother, Charlotte, can’t stand. When Charlotte takes off to Hollywood leaving the girls to fend for themselves, they assume she’ll be back in a few days or a week tops. However, when her absence grows to weeks, Bean and Liz decide to travel from California to Virginia to stay with their Uncle Tinsley.
The bus ride alone is an adventure, but when they arrive in Byler, Bean and Liz find their uncle living almost as a recluse. Tinsley Holliday once ran the mills that were the life blood of the town, but since being forced out by the new owners and the death of his wife, he has taken refuge in the beautiful but run down home that has been in the family for generations. However, as often the case, the sisters’ arrival helps Tinsley start to reconnect and he provides the girls with the first sense of stability they’ve ever known.
However, all is not going to go smoothly. There is a lot of tension in Byler due to the recent integration of the schools and Bean and Liz not only face this when they start school, but in a small town, the reputation of their mother precedes them. Also, early on, Bean and Liz look for work and end up working for the current foreman of the mill, a bullying but charismatic man named Jerry Maddox. A testament to the first person narrative here is that we see the danger long before Bean does and it’s hard to watch events move toward their inevitable conclusion.
Though I loved many of the characters in this book (and rooted for them!), this novel didn’t fully work for me. I can’t quite articulate why the pacing felt off and how sometimes the dialogue didn’t feel real. In another novelist’s hands, I would have been bawling at some of the unfairness of what Bean and Liz face. Here I was pretty dry-eyed. So, this is a perfectly fine novel, but it doesn’t cut as deep as Wall’s memoirs do. ...more
Reading this novel took me back to middle and high school when I read a lot of science fiction—including Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The LathReading this novel took me back to middle and high school when I read a lot of science fiction—including Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, etc. Like all good speculative fiction, it says as much about the time it was written (1974) as it does about the future. I missed that it was subtitled, “An Ambiguous Utopia,” but that seems a fitting title.
Set in the far distant future where mankind (one assumes) has spread to many galaxies and planets, this novel tells the story of one man caught between two worlds and two worldviews. Shevek is born on Anarres, an arid moon-like planet, whose society was formed when an anarchist group split off from the more earth-like planet, Urras. In Anarres, there is no government or elected leaders or money. Everyone works together to stay alive and to raise the next generation. Life is hard but because the sacrifices are shared, no one rebels. However, by choice, Anarres has almost totally cut themselves off from Urras—accepting only the occasional trading mission. This is because they see everything they’ve left behind there—unequal gender roles, huge gaps between rich and poor, wasting of resources, etc.
As a youth, Shevek develops a love for physics and his aptitude for it (and maybe something already in his personality) begins to set him apart from others. As he grows older (and begins to butt up against the limits of his own society), he begins to wonder if this barrier between two worlds is one that should be broken—for the benefit of both. The story is told in alternating chapters—one chronicles Shevek’s experiences as he travels to Urras to share his knowledge and perhaps develop new theories in physics and the other tells the story of what led Shevek to make this life-changing (and life-endangering) decision.
This isn’t just a story of one man but also a story of competing ideologies and the limits inherent in both. Given all that’s going on with the 99% and the Occupy Wall street movement, I think this novel doesn’t feel trapped in the 70’s. Rather just like The Left Hand of Darkness questions gender constructions so too does this novel force the reader to think about the ways societies are organized and how that shapes thinking and actions. ...more
I’m a sucker for stories that involve dogs saving their human owners and this tale is a true one. Dan Dye tells the story of how adopting a deaf and pI’m a sucker for stories that involve dogs saving their human owners and this tale is a true one. Dan Dye tells the story of how adopting a deaf and partially blind, albino Great Dane puppy named Gracie changes his life and the life of his roommate, Mark Beckloff. Dan has spent months mourning the loss of his dog, Blue, but a friend, Anne, who recently adopted a Great Dane puppy, calls on Dan to rescue her dog’s sister-who desperately needs a loving home. Gracie brings a lot of chaos into Dan’s household, including upsetting Mark’s two dogs, Sarah and Dottie, but soon the pack rules.
It’s in an attempt to fatten up the ailing Gracie that Dan begins to bake his own dog treats. This eventually leads to the opening of Three Dog Bakery and to Gracie and her sisters becoming canine celebrities. Though I visited Three Dog Bakery in Kansas City in the late 1980’s, I missed the big hoopla as the chain went national and Gracie got to go on Oprah. Luckily, Dan describes this all in hilarious detail. Like all good dog stories, this one has to end too soon and like many a dog, Gracie shows how to truly live even as she says goodbye. I dare you to read the last few chapters with a dry eye. ...more
When I was in 5th grade, my grandmother (who was a children’s librarian) gave me a copy of Susan Cooper’s book, The Dark is Rising. At that point, itWhen I was in 5th grade, my grandmother (who was a children’s librarian) gave me a copy of Susan Cooper’s book, The Dark is Rising. At that point, it was the second book in a soon to be five-book series, drawing heavily on Arthurian legend. In it, young Brit, Will Stanton, finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is the last of the Old Ones, a group of immortal beings dedicated to fighting for the Light against the powers of the Dark. It’s the usual trope of Good versus Evil, but what made the series so good (and compelling to just turned 11-year-old me) was the way Will Stanton’s world turned upside down. One minute he was an ordinary kid, the youngest in a large and chaotic family, and the next, a veil was pulled back and he suddenly saw the extraordinary things going on that few others could see. Since then I’ve always been a fan of novels that begin firmly rooted in the reality we know but then veer off into strange territory—secret forces, hidden worlds, etc.
I think this is why I found The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell so compelling. I haven’t read Cloud Atlas or any of his other books though I was aware that Mitchell seems to be the kind of writer you either love or passionately hate. The world that Mitchell creates here, with Holly Sykes at its center, is one that seems grittily realistic—even as Mitchell pushes the story into the future. However, peel back the veil and there’s something magical/supernatural/unnerving going on—something that is gradually revealed over the course of 600+ pages.
This novel starts out simply enough. It’s 1984 and teenage Holly Sykes is having a very bad day. She has a fight with her mom, runs away from home to stay with her boyfriend, Vinny, only to discover that she’s not the only girl in Vinny’s life. This sends her off on a longer journey—to “run away” long enough to make both her mom and Vinny guilty. However, a chance encounter with a strange old homeless woman reminds Holly of other odd moments in her life, when she used to hear voices that she called The Radio People. And then things get stranger and stranger.
The novel continues in chunks-each chunk constructed from a different character’s point of view and set in a different time period—but each narrator will intersect with Holly in some way. We move from the 1980’s into the 1990’s and all the way to 2043. Mitchell gives us bits and pieces of the larger “supernatural/mystical/call it what you will dynamic” going on as it’s experienced by each of these characters and he offers a view of the future that is as chilling as many a dystopian YA novel. I’m trying to not be too specific here since one of the appeals of the novel is trying to figure out what really is going on. For those readers who like concrete and well-explained plots, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re willing to invest in each of these “worlds” Mitchell creates, the effect of the whole is very powerful. I devoured this book in big chunks and kept wanting to come back to it.
It’s a book that stayed with me, a bit like a vivid dream, and I’ve found myself thinking about it at odd times since I finished it over a week ago. If you don’t mind ambiguity and dense description, this novel is well worth the investment. If it weren’t so darn long, it would be a great book club book—because there are lots of ideas to grapple with. ...more
Anna Quindlen’s novel tells the story of an aging New York City photographer, Rebecca Winter, who once was famous, but now is struggling financially—tAnna Quindlen’s novel tells the story of an aging New York City photographer, Rebecca Winter, who once was famous, but now is struggling financially—to keep her NYC apartment and to pay for her parents’ different nursing home situations. She is divorced but has an adult son. She rents a run down cottage in upstate New York both to escape the pressures of her life but also to save money and to take some time to rethink her life. A gunshot-like noise in the middle of the night alerts her to the presence of an angry raccoon in her attic and this brings her in contact with a middle-aged roofer named Jim Bates.
The story unfolds as Rebecca reflects on her past but also begins to make connections in the small town that she’s found herself in. Though it’s obvious early on that Rebecca and Jim will end up together, this isn’t a romance novel and both characters have paths to travel before they connect. There’s a lot of critique of the New York art scene here and some interesting meditations on photography and art in general.
The best way I can describe this novel is “gentle” because you are sucked into Rebecca’s complex history but you never feel like you’re going to drown in it. Ironically, this is the second book in a month that I’ve read that involves a house out in the middle of nowhere, a dog, and mental illness. It works and I enjoyed the read even though it didn’t overpower me. ...more
This novel is what all good speculative fiction should be—an intriguing set up with characters you actually care about. The story begins as three younThis novel is what all good speculative fiction should be—an intriguing set up with characters you actually care about. The story begins as three young people—Tyler Dupree and Jason and Diana Lawton—are out late stargazing when they witness history. A shield suddenly surrounds the planet—and as a result, the stars go out. The story then follows what happens to these three characters in response to what is known as the “Spin.” One of the things that scientists/astronomers figure out early on is that time is working differently inside the shield than outside; so while only a few months may pass on earth, millions of years are passing on the other side of the shield. This means that the “end of universe” may be coming in a matter of decades.
Jason and Diana are the children of a powerful businessman, who immediately cashes in on the scientific efforts to understand the Spin and develops a global company that rivals NASA. Jason seems to have been groomed to take up a position in this company—a genius who devotes his life to unraveling the mysteries of what has happened. Diana has a different reaction to the Spin—taking up with a religious cult, while, our narrator, Tyler, becomes a doctor.
Over the next thirty years, their lives intersect in intriguing ways as each struggles to come to terms with the end of the world that seems on the horizon. However, what really makes this novel work is the way the story is organized—moving back and forth between past and present and chronicling how society handles (or doesn’t handle) this mysterious phenomena and what it might mean. ...more