Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Station Eleven

Station Eleven / Emily St John Mandel
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
333 p.

Extraordinary. That's what this book is. So very good.

I've just finished racing through this book, pausing to catch my breath upon finishing, and now I want to start it all over again.

It's not your everyday apocalyptic novel; Mandel resists the easy grandiosity of despair that permeates so many "collapse of civilization" novels. Our world after disaster (this time a virus which kills off  99% of the world population) does not turn into a raging, violent patriarchy. Oh sure, there are some manly lunatics to be found, but Mandel also captures a more nuanced view of our possible future. Art remains, the longing for community remains. Female characters are still people.

The structure of the book supports this complex new world. Beginning in Toronto just hours before the start of the great pandemic, we see Arthur Leander in his last great role, that of King Lear. It's his last part, as he has a heart attack on stage and dies. The paramedic who tries to assist, the little girl (Kirsten) on stage with him at the moment he dies, his ex-wives, his best friend -- they are all part of what follows.

The story jumps back and forth between Arthur's life and Kirsten's life, the before and after of civilization's end. It builds with a slow burn, revealing the connections between characters and events bit by bit. Doing this emphasizes the continuation of life -- it doesn't just start anew after the disaster, parts of pre-virus life are still shaping and affecting the progression of humanity.

But much, much more than just the idea of a post-apocalyptic novel, this book is packed full of beautiful, harrowing images and characters. It's dream-like, elegiac, precise, mysterious, making the reader homesick for the world we haven't -- yet -- lost. What would you miss most? she asks. Whether it's an orange, ice cream, air conditioning, phones, electricity, or the loved ones left behind, Mandel manages to make each character's longings powerful, their memories as real as their new life. Despite -- or maybe because of -- the slower pace of this novel, I was completely drawn in, hypnotized by the structure and the slow revelations and the sudden violence and the horror and beauty side by side. By the losses and by the hope that Mandel allows to remain in this new reality.

Not only this, she uses Shakespeare and the Travelling Symphony to show how art remains, how it sustains. This travelling troupe of actors and musicians carries on the artistic tradition that is highlighted in the book's opening pages. In addition to that, Kirsten carries two self-published comic books, originally created by Arthur's first wife Miranda. They feature Dr. Eleven, named after the planet he lives on after the destruction of earth, Station Eleven. There are obvious resonances between the post-Earth and post-apocalypse settings. But aside from that, it's also incredibly beautiful. Even though the comic is only described in words, I felt like I'd read it myself, could picture the layouts. And the jacket designer for the UK edition has also drawn a two page spread from Dr. Eleven -- brilliant.

I could go on. I could describe the snow falling onstage in the opening pages, or the bread baking in the last pages, the airplane at the edge of a tarmac, the empty house with nothing touched since the virus, an empty airport turned into a settlement of 300 souls... but I'll just say that everyone needs to read this achingly beautiful book. To spend time with these complex, fascinating characters.

While I tend to avoid books that are getting a lot of hype, after reading this, I don't think it has been getting enough hype! It's an amazing achievement, a book I know I'll read again. If you like apocalyptic tales, read this one for a fresh vision on the theme. If you don't like apocalyptic novels, read this one to discover why you just might like one after all. It is exquisite.

Further Reading:

While the classic Brave New World by Aldous Huxley has a very different tone, its themes of the power of art and what it means to be human reflect some of the ideas explored in Station Eleven. Huxley also uses Shakespeare to highlight the connection between great art and free thinking.

If it's the beautiful writing and strong characters in a changed world that appeal, move 1000 years into the future and explore the tribal, low-tech world in John Crowley's Engine Summer. Similarly slower paced and nostalgic, it's a short novel full of longing for the old world.

One more random selection: Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Station Eleven is like the dystopian version of Emily's passionate plea "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Back of the Turtle

The Back of the Turtle / Thomas King
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
518 p.

I've been awaiting this novel with great anticipation; I've really enjoyed King's previous fiction, and have had a 15 year wait for this one! Meanwhile, of course, there have been his nonfiction works to enjoy and learn from...but I love fiction. It's quite a beautiful package; the cover suits the book wonderfully, which makes sense, as King's partner Helen Hoy painted it.

In The Back of the Turtle, King has created a kaleidoscopic vision of linked characters telling their stories discretely. It begins with Gabriel Quinn, a bio-engineer who has been working for Domidion for many years. Domidion is a massive multinational whose research, thanks to Gabriel, created GreenSweep, a nasty defoliant which, used in error, kills a river in British Columbia, travelling for miles, all the way to the sea and a further twenty miles offshore. It kills the vegetation, the animal life, and even many human beings living alongside -- including the residents of Smoke River Reserve -- Gabriel's estranged family among them. When Gabriel cottons on to his part in this disaster, he disappears from Domidion.

Gabriel has gone to Smoke River to kill himself. But life gets in the way. He meets Mara, who has returned to the reserve alone after years in Toronto. He also meets local Nicholas Crisp, a trickster figure. All of this happens within the context of a creation myth which they all tell to one another -- The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. 

Meanwhile, Domidion CEO Dorian Asher is trying to find his lost scientist. He's also trying to minimize the fallout from yet another environmental disaster caused by his company, this time a breach of a tailing pond on the Athabasca River (wait a second, is this really fiction?) He is fixated on his image, his power, and his money. To survive the stress, Asher pops out and buys expensive new watches, clothes, and even a new condo.

Switching back and forth between these two stories, from Toronto to BC, from rampant, destructive capitalism to a living being trying to take responsibility for his actions, trying to find his place in the world again, is quite effective. We can see how this small group of individuals are connected, and how their circle grows; of course, we can see this in the creation myth as well. And we can see what happens when someone disconnects from the greater community and thinks only of their own benefit and gain. Just as in the creation myth, Dorian and Gabriel are like the two twins of the Woman Who Fell From the Sky -- one builds up and one destroys. There are echoes set up in the story between native mythology, Christian mythology, humanism and more. It's an interesting read, which only occasionally dips too far into political commentary.

I enjoyed the structure, really liked some of the characters, and found the descriptions of Domidion's environmental follies all too stark and realistic. King is encouraging us to do something, to make changes in our world, even while telling us an entertaining, richly peopled story.

While there were a few flaws in the reading, for me -- some of the characters' tics became a bit irritating, the ending was somewhat inconclusive, for example -- as a reading experience it was rewarding. The story is completely embedded in our modern way of life, featuring characters with constant electronic connection but disconnection from the greater sense of Life. Less overtly based in native mythologies than Truth & Bright Water, perhaps, but still steeped in a spiritual recognition of our place in a wider world.

You can listen to a fascinating interview between King and Jian Ghomeshi over at Q on CBC, too.
This is also my first read for the Diverse Universe Reading Event this year!

Further Reading:

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor uses the same idea of native mythology coming to life in the modern world, and tells a story of regular people on a reserve who encounter a strange new interloper into their community. It involves historical land use and environmental concerns, but is also full of humour, too!

For a more sombre read featuring the coming-of-age of a Haisla heroine, which also involves the loss of family members, try Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson. This novel is similarly set in BC, and is steeped in West Coast mythology. It features a well-drawn cast of supporting characters.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Piersall's Animal Mandalas

Coloring Animal Mandalas / Wendy Piersall 
Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, c2014.

I was offered a lovely book for review recently, from the new-to-me Ulysses Press in Berkeley. Since I have both used and taught mandalas as an expressive art practice previously, I was instantly interested.

And this is a lovely book! It includes 31 intricate mandala images featuring cats, birds, sea creatures, horses, bugs and more. Some are very detailed, and would take much attention to colour in. Some are a little more free-form, with larger spaces to fill. All are very lovely.

I think my favourite ones are those featuring shells and fish. They seem to have an organic flow that really appeals to me. But there is one with swans that I'll have to work on first, considering my city's emblematic swans! I can see that these images are going to be quite enjoyable for a long while.

Have you ever used pre-made mandalas yourself? The act of concentrating and colouring them in is quite peaceful and relaxing. I usually like to focus in on the experience of colouring while letting my mind rest -- it's something we were quite skilled at as children but forget to do as grownups. Piersall's designs are unique and pretty, many of them resembling the intricate detail of a mosaic.

If you haven't tried this 'adult colouring book' experience before, I'd say that this collection offers a fun starting point. It's a nice size and printed single-sided for colouring, on paper that will play with crayons, pencils or markers equally well. Adults and older children would both enjoy these images, I think.

If you want to see some sample images, check out Piersall's animal mandala page on her larger website (which is full of activities and worksheets for kids, also great). Also, pop over to her blog to print off a free hedgehog design that didn't make it into the final book -- too cute.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Do you like Amish fiction?

Here's something I've been experimenting with for work lately -- book infographics made with Venngage. It has a free account option, which is actually quite limited -- 5 free templates and no download options. Though you can share on social media and embed the infographic. Testing it out -- tell me what you think!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

God is an Astronaut

God Is An Astronaut / Alyson Foster
New York: Bloomsbury, c2014
289 p.

I recently wrote a review of this novel for our local paper, the Stratford Gazette. You can find my thoughts below.

But for my blog readers, I also want to add that this book is a fine example of a modern epistolary novel. It's told in one-way emails, from Jess to her absent colleague Arthur (someone who is closer to her than we first realize). This one-way device adds some mystery and poignancy to the story, and I think as a technique it fits in quite well with Jess' character. Feeling alone and unlistened to, Jess would naturally write emails to someone who is -- or was -- there for her emotionally. Even though we see everything through Jess' eyes, all of the characters have a presence, though of course mostly in how they relate to her.

I enjoyed this one as a quieter read, with a focus on the internal shift that Jess is experiencing.

This review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette on Thursday, September 4th.

Jess Frobisher is all about plants; her husband Liam is all about space. Somehow they’ve always met in the middle – until now. Jess is a botany professor at a small college, and as the story opens she is madly digging up her yard to put in an enormous greenhouse. This greenhouse is fated to fail; just as in her wider life, growth and fecundity is stagnating. Liam, on the other hand, is in the midst of a maelstrom. His space tourism company, Spaceco, is being beseiged with press after their latest shuttle exploded after takeoff with four celebrity tourists onboard.

Jess wants to help, but Liam's propensity for secrets and emotional distance puts her at a major disadvantage. She is so thirsty for emotional connection that she talks to a reporter who has made overtures of friendship. This, as you might imagine, has vast repercussions on both Spaceco's crisis and on her marriage.

As this crisis continues, Liam jumps at an offer from a husband-and-wife filmmaking team to create a documentary about Spaceco and the families behind it. He’s hoping that it will result in some good PR spin. But being put in the spotlight (literally) changes the way the story unfolds for Jess and Liam.

The story is told in a series of emails that Jess sends to her colleague Arthur, who has gone on sabbatical to study trees in Manitoba. Yes, he is near Winnipeg, and there is some Canadian content here, including a discussion of the relative merits of Tim Hortons' doughnuts (or 'donuts' if you will). The format of the book – we see only Jess's one sided emails -- gives us a slowly expanding sense of the truth of all her relationships and of the major events that she is relating. As the emails get longer, and the story deepens, we see that sometimes our true desires are hidden even from ourselves, until they are suddenly there in black and white.

It’s an engaging read, set just far enough into the future that space tourism is a reality, but also very grounded in our everyday normality. Jess writes her way through a dramatic midlife crisis, and makes her way through to the other side, taking readers along for the ride. Readers who enjoy getting to know their characters well will want to pick up this book.

Further Reading:

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzger has a similar setup with an emotionally distant, space-focused husband and increasingly anxious/unsettled wife. It also focuses on character and relationship.

If you enjoyed the format, and the theme of a woman in an uncertain midlife marriage, try Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon next, a story told in emails, facebook updates, texts and more.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks / David Mitchell
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2014.
640 p.

This is the first Mitchell I've read. I enjoyed it during the process of reading, but on reflection, I keep thinking of things that irritate me in retrospect. So I'd give it a well-worth-reading-but-not-a-must-read rating. There have been quite a few reviews posted online already, in every single media presence in New York, apparently -- I've seen the New York Times, the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, so far. If you want lengthy analysis just try those. My thoughts are a bit more personal.

If you've read Mitchell before, or even watched the movie of Cloud Atlas, you will be familiar with his default style. Many characters telling distinct narratives which intertwine as you read each section. Sometimes this kind of structure really works well, but here I found that it was a bit jarring.

The book follows Holly Sykes from 1984 to 2048. By that I mean she is a character in each section, the linking one. The first section is told from her viewpoint, at age 15, when she gets into an argument with her mother and runs away. Strange things begin happening very quickly, tied to Holly's experience of hearing voices, which she calls The Radio People. This introduces the other main element of the plot, that of warring factions of an elite secret group known as Horologists with their enemies, the Anchorites, a group using dark magic to achieve the form of immortality with which the Horologists are naturally gifted.

Each section takes the action further, with more information about the Horologists weaving into each bit, until the final showdown in section 5. Which is then followed by section 6, Holly in her 80's living in an apocalyptic Ireland with civil society effectively dismantled. This seemed like a completely unnecessary and irrelevant storyline, tacked on to the end, perhaps to finish off Holly's story, or to make this book into the huge chunkster than Mitchell is known for and people seem to love to buy.

Anyhow, I don't mean to sound cynical. I did enjoy this while reading it, mostly. The eruptions of graphic video game style violence were things I skimmed over quickly, and found excessive, particularly in the very beginning and end parts. And the tone of the various sections, upon reflection, has not jelled into a whole, for me. It's particularly the bits told from the male perspectives that I felt were plucked from other books, not really this one.

The section told from the perspective of Hugo Lamb, a sociopathic British college boy felt a bit too "laddish" for me; Hugo was a darker, crueller version of Edward Docx's Jasper of The Calligrapher -- a self-centred, immature man focused on gratifying his own needs. Another section, the long and self-referential tale of a writer who becomes fixated on punishing a reviewer who has panned his book, was a bit much. Interesting in parts, I just felt like the ending of this section didn't make sense or have any meaning for the rest of the story. And the section with Ed, Holly's husband, talking about his experiences as a war reporter, just seemed to jar in its extreme reality with the 'supernatural' elements of the premise of the book. If we are expected to suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the idea of a cabal of supremely gifted, nearly immortal figures who twist the action of the world, it is very difficult to also be thrown back into a violent realistic portrayal of a situation that is actually happening due to human idiocy and has always happened, with a sense of its inevitable losses and our inability to fix it -- war in Syria and Gaza and all of those places that we are living with now.

Anyhow -- the idea of the Horologists and Holly's involvement was well formed. The complexity of this creation was fascinating, and quite entertaining. But mixing this all up into a dog's breakfast of style, tone, and character just didn't work for me.

What I did like about it was the character of Holly, and her relationships with her family. I also found the Horologists fun, and the use of a paranormal maze as a escape route was quite brilliant -- and represented so effectively in the beautiful cover of this book. I also found the phrase "bone clocks" evocative, a great description of the frail mortality of us all, the mortality that both of the paranormal organizations are mostly exempt from.

 If you already like David Mitchell, or you've read and enjoyed this kind of collage-like storytelling elsewhere, then you will likely really enjoy this one too. I read it and liked it, in the way that you like eating chocolate chip cookies for breakfast sometimes, but would never say that you'd just had the best meal ever. Recommended as an enjoyable romp for a relaxing weekend or a summer's lazy day indulgence.

Further Reading:

If you're looking for another super-long tale of mysterious shadowy characters, writers and multiple converging storylines, try Murakami's IQ84.

Max Barry's Lexicon tells another story of a mysterious yet powerful organization that controls humanity through the persuasive power of magic words, but which is in the process of infighting, which results in numerous violent episodes. Similar tones, and a similarity in the confusion of timelines.

Monday, September 01, 2014

It's Time... for RIP IX!

It's that time again! September 1st and time for the Ninth RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge! Fall doesn't really start until RIP appears; and although it is humid, windy and warm today, I'm sure that before long the oven will be used again, sweaters will be dug out of summer storage and I'll return to my hot chocolate addiction that takes over in the cooler months :) But to kick off any season, the most important thing is to read some appropriate literature, of course...

Ably hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, this challenge is all about throwing yourself into 

  • Mystery.
  • Suspense.
  • Thriller.
  • Dark Fantasy.
  • Gothic.
  • Horror.
  • Supernatural.
  • Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

I've always loved this challenge -- it's such fun to read creepy tales and share them at this time of year. This year I'm choosing to do Peril the Second: read two books that fit this criteria between Sept 1 and Oct 31. I'm hoping I'll get to read at least four titles to make it to Peril the First, but not sure I will able to, so for now I am committing to two! Here are two suitable titles that I plan to read, both from my Century of Books challenge list:

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Hope you will also think about reading along!